At the start of last school year, Duluth East High School saw “an explosion (in students vaping) within the school, on buses, (and) on school property,” as East Principal Danette Seboe said in an interview in January with the News Tribune Editorial Board. “And that was after we saw a drastic increase (the year before).”
With another new school year now begun, Seboe is part of a renewed call for the state and for individual communities within Minnesota to do more to take on e-cigarettes and the rising re-emergence of cancer-causing tobacco use, especially among young people. Led by Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, a coalition of more than 60 organizations working to reduce youth tobacco use, the renewed call is for actions like raising tobacco prices, raising the legal age to buy tobacco, limiting access to flavored tobacco products that appeal to and are shamelessly marketed to children, and funding proven tobacco prevention and cessation programs.
The increasing popularity of vaping devices, including e-cigarettes, isn’t only troubling and concerning; it’s to blame for Minnesota’s first increase in youth tobacco use in a full generation, according to the coalition. The 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found that one in five Minnesota high school students were using e-cigarettes regularly and that two in five had tried the dangerous devices.
At East, more than half the students have tried vaping devices, Seboe said in January, citing a different survey.
“Every day at our school, I see firsthand the crisis of our national youth e-cigarette epidemic,” Seboe said in a statement issued just before the start of this school year by the Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation group. “The number of teens using e-cigarettes has skyrocketed and many students and even parents don't know the vast majority of e-cigarettes contains significant amounts of nicotine. Our kids and young people unknowingly are becoming addicted. Last school year, every single e-cigarette we confiscated contained nicotine. In fact, most of the bottles or pods had the highest level of nicotine available for purchase.
“We are working diligently with families, staff and students, but we can’t do this work alone,” Seboe further said. “Minnesota needs an all-hands-on-deck response to this epidemic.”
Adding to the urgency, last week, more evidence emerged of a lung illness believed to be linked to vaping. A story at duluthnewstribune.com said that 25 states, including Minnesota, now have had cases of the severe respiratory ailment linked to e-cigarettes. South Dakota became the latest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating.
In Duluth, credit elected councilors for attempting to keep flavored-tobacco products away from children by restricting their sales — even if councilors can also justifiably be criticized for how they went about it: by unfairly targeting convenience stores in favor of smoke shops.
The council this year also raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products in Duluth from 18 to 21, joining Hermantown and more than 30 other Minnesota cities. At least 12 states also have adopted so-called “Tobacco 21” laws.
The U.S. Surgeon General has called youth e-cigarette use an epidemic and has confirmed that nicotine is addictive and can harm the adolescent brain. Nearly 95 percent of addicted adult smokers started before turning 21, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This dangerous habit needs to be headed off early. But as Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation points out, “For too many Minnesota students, back to school means back to JUULing in bathrooms, hallways and classrooms. Schools across the state report problems with e-cigarette use that have led to disruptions in learning and school activities. … Teen tobacco use puts youth at risk for health problems and a lifetime of addiction.”
So back-to-school time is a great time for this reminder. Clearly, more action is needed to match Big Tobacco’s aggressive marketing to children as young as 8, including “influencers” on social media. The next generation of Minnesotans needs our help.