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Despite the health risks, expense and, yes, the smell, more than 40 million Americans still smoke cigarettes. Nine out of 10 got hooked as teens, finding out only later how insidious and tenacious nicotine addiction is.

That's why the growing national movement to push the legal purchase age for tobacco products to 21 is so critical. In Minnesota, Edina is on the front line of that fight, with City Council members on track to make their city the first in the state to raise the legal age.

Predictably, that has also made them the target of those who bring all the usual criticisms. Edina officials should persevere and, when a final vote comes up on May 2, add the city to the list of more than 200 jurisdictions across the country that have adopted the higher standard. Among those are New York City, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City and even the states of California and Hawaii.

Does it make a difference? Take a look at Needham, Massachusetts, which adopted 21 as a limit in 2005. A decade of tracking showed that smoking among young people in that city dropped by 50 percent. High schoolers in Needham are three times less likely to start smoking than their U.S. counterparts.

The battle to change attitudes about smoking has not been easy, and this country has come a long way from the time when it was acceptable to light up in restaurants, offices, elevators and even airplanes.

The next frontier is to nip smoking before it starts — in adolescence. Smoking rates continue to decline across the country, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that every day another 3,200 Americans 18 or younger try their first cigarette. Statistics show that three out of four who smoke in high school will go on to become regular adult smokers.

Some Minnesota students have actually lobbied the Legislature, asking for the higher age limit. Hundreds of students came to the Capitol in February, seeking to raise the legal age from 18 to 21.

There are those — the tobacco industry among them — who try to cast this as a freedom-of-choice issue. It's not. This is a health issue, pure and simple. As with any addictive substance, adolescents are more susceptible, and suffer graver effects, because the human brain continues developing through the early 20s. That gives society a strong public interest in guarding against exposure to substances that can result in costly and dangerous addictions. A report commissioned by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota this year showed that smoking kills more than 6,300 Minnesotans a year and racks up $3.19 billion in excess medical costs. The economic burden amounts to $593 for every man, woman and child in this state.

This is not a freedom issue because once their decisionmaking capabilities are developed, a 21-year-old will find no legal barriers should they chose to smoke. But research shows that most of them won't. They've wised up by then.

Let's give them that chance.

This editorial appeared in the April 21 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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