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Other Opinion: Minnesota's cities continue to lead in snuffing smoking

With elected state leaders still mostly just blowing smoke, Minnesota's cities continue to take steps to improve health, clear the air, and prevent young Minnesotans from being ensnared by the deadly dangers of cigarettes and tobacco use.

Last week, St. Peter became the ninth Minnesota city in just a little over a year to raise the legal age to buy tobacco to 21. It joined Edina, St. Louis Park, Bloomington, Plymouth, North Mankato, Shoreview, Falcon Heights, and Minneapolis in passing so-called "Tobacco 21" policies.

"Seeing local entities take charge of tobacco-prevention measures in their communities: That is so encouraging to us," Anne Mason of the Minneapolis-based smoking-cessation group ClearWay Minnesota said in an interview last summer with the News Tribune Opinion page.

At that time, only Edina had raised the legal age to buy tobacco, and only a couple of other cities in our state were taking their first steps. Imagine Mason's giddiness now.

But Duluth hasn't yet followed the lead of Minnesota's "Tobacco 21" nine, and that's disappointing.

And neither has the state, which is even more disappointing — but perhaps not surprising in the wake of this year's do-almost-nothing legislative session.

The lack of action is even though an estimated 25 percent fewer young Minnesotans would take up the deadly habit if the tobacco age was raised to 21 statewide. That's according to a study commissioned by ClearWay and by the Minnesota Department of Health. That's 30,000 Minnesota kids over a 15-year period who wouldn't end up addicted, whose lives could be saved.

How urgent is the need for action? Youth tobacco use rose for the first time in 17 years last year, driven largely by the popularity of e-cigarettes, the Minnesota Department of Health found. More than 26 percent of high-school students reported using tobacco, an increase of 7 percent.

An estimated 95 percent of adults who smoke or use tobacco started before they were 21, according to ClearWay. Once hooked, smokers and other tobacco users face the likelihood of lung cancer, throat cancer, and other deadly ailments. An estimated 5,100 to 5,500 Minnesotans die every year from smoking. The habit accounts for 1 in 5 U.S. deaths annually. Tobacco kills more people every year than alcohol, murders, car crashes, AIDS, illegal drugs, and suicides — combined, according to ClearWay.

And smokers and other tobacco users aren't the only ones paying a price. A 2013 estimate found that Minnesotans dole out $3 billion a year to cover excess health care costs related to smoking. That comes to about $554 from every man, woman and child in the state.

Like Duluth, Minnesota has been a pioneer on this front, making its lack of action now all the more troubling. Our state's 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act was groundbreaking. Minnesota's Freedom to Breathe Act followed in 2007, banning smoking in all public places, including even in restaurants, bars, and bowling alleys. More recently, lawmakers jacked up the state's tobacco tax in an attempt to make tobacco use cost-prohibitive, especially to younger people.

Duluth and the state both can continue to be leaders and can be embarrassed, sitting idly by and watching as Minnesota cities — now including St. Peter — take up the torch.

-- Duluth News Tribune