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Minnesota students lobby lawmakers on smoking laws

Youth advocates with the Minnesota Coalition for a Smoke Free Generation were encouraged to spread the message of their visit to the State Capitol Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, on social media. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service1 / 2
Minnesota state Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, introduced a bill Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, to ban discount coupons for tobacco products. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Cigarette smoke seems to be a constant presence in Cayanne Korder's life.

The Red Wing High School sophomore does not smoke herself, but her mother, stepfather, brother and two older sisters do.

Two cousins around her age picked up the habit by the time they were 13.

"It's a terrible habit, I can't stand it," Korder said. "I'm an athlete, so to me, it's a health issue."

Korder was one of nearly 300 youth advocates to gather recently at the Minnesota state Capitol with anti-smoking group ClearWay Minnesota's Smoke Free Generation coalition.

Minnesota elementary through high school students talked to lawmakers about three of the coalition's legislative goals this year: keep tobacco prices high, raise the smoking age to 21 and restrict flavored tobacco products.

For Two Harbors High School senior Abigail Hefter, keeping candy-flavored tobacco products away from kids takes top priority.

As a child, Hefter would imagine being able to take in flavors like muffins or chocolate cake without ever getting full. Products like e-cigarettes, she said, offer that promise.

"It's easy to draw people in because it's blueberry flavored, or strawberry," she said. "It's so unhealthy for you but people think it's just water vapor and flavoring, and it's not."

The coalition estimates that raising Minnesota's smoking age would prevent 30,000 kids from lighting up over 15 years.

Both California and Hawaii, along with a lengthy list of U.S. cities, enforce a legal tobacco sale age of 21.

Although it may be a tough sell to Minnesota lawmakers, Hefter said, raising the smoking age would better prevent kids from taking up tobacco.

"There's less 15, 16, 17-year-olds that are best friends with 21-year-olds," she said. "I work at a KwikTrip and people will buy ridiculous amounts of tobacco, and you know they're not smoking that whole tub. They're obviously giving it to somebody."

Chairman Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, of the House Health and Human Service Committee said raising the smoking age in Minnesota would be "controversial."

"Increasing taxes and prohibition by age are kind of the most drastic steps," he said. "Then on the other end of the spectrum, it's things like letting 11th-graders know what this does to how you look, how you smell, how appealing you are, those kinds of things."

Dean said he favors an approach that would focus on outreach efforts with the Minnesota Health Department and grants to nonprofits that help vulnerable populations steer clear of tobacco.

Minnesota implements automatic annual inflation to tobacco taxes.

House Taxes Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said this year's tax bill will include a provision to stop the inflator, which he called "lazy."

"I hate cigarettes, but if people want to raise the tobacco tax, have the debate and raise the tobacco tax," he said. "Don't have an automatic inflator, that's very poor public policy."

Davids said Minnesota's already-high tobacco taxes have led to more crime involving tobacco smuggling.

"Tax policy affects behavior," he said. "Because of our out-of-line taxes, you could take a suburban and 8-by-12 U Haul, fill it up in North Dakota and make over a million dollars in the difference in price."

ClearWay supports a bill Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis introduced earlier this week that would ban discount coupons for tobacco products, which he said undermine state-imposed high tobacco prices that steer Minnesotans away from smoking.

Hayden also has been critical of how flavored tobacco regulations treat menthol cigarettes, which he said target black communities.

The Center for Disease control reports more than 88 percent of black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes.

"When the FDA (federal Food and Drug Administration) went to ban flavored cigarettes, the only one they didn't ban was menthol, and I think it's because black people smoke them," he told youth advocates. "So, I think there's not only the environmental justice, but there's also an element of racism in that. That's what we want to tease out and talk about."