With students returning for in-person learning, schools — including in the Duluth district — can renew and redouble efforts to curb vaping, e-cigarette puffing, and what had been a rising re-emergence of cancer-causing tobacco use overall among young people.

Before the pandemic sent everyone home, there had been “an explosion” in student vaping “within the school, on buses, (and) on school property,” as Duluth East Principal Danette Seboe said in a 2019 interview with the News Tribune Editorial Board.

“And that was after we saw a drastic increase (the year before),” Seboe said.

Reinvigorating efforts now to snuff smoking and other nicotine-ingesting bad choices can be led by Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, a coalition of more than 60 organizations that has been working since 2016 to reduce youth tobacco use in the state. Its work helped lead to increased tobacco taxes to help make products prohibitively expensive, especially to young people; raising the legal age to buy tobacco to keep the products away from youth; limiting access to flavored tobacco products that appeal to and are shamelessly marketed to children; and funding proven tobacco-prevention and tobacco-cessation programs.

The increasing popularity of vaping devices, including e-cigarettes, wasn’t being seen pre-pandemic only as troubling and concerning; it was blamed for Minnesota's first increase in youth tobacco use in a full generation. The 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found that one in five Minnesota high school students was using e-cigarettes regularly and that two in five had tried the dangerous devices.

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In Duluth, at East, more than half the students had tried vaping devices, Seboe reported in 2019, citing a district survey.

In addition, tobacco use is responsible for more than 6,300 deaths and more than $3 billion in preventable health care costs every year in Minnesota, according to the nonprofit. Nearly all adult smokers, 95%, started before their 21st birthday, the coalition determined.

This isn’t just a Duluth or Minnesota problem, either. Worldwide, more than 8 million people die of smoking-related causes every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Although progress has been made in our state — Minnesota has been smoke-free indoors since 2007, and the tobacco-buying age was raised to 21 on Aug. 1, 2020, as just two examples — youth nicotine use remains a challenge.

With little clarity on how tobacco use is being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — which poses its own health challenges, including, beyond serious illness, maladies caused by isolation, distancing, a loss of structure, and lockdowns — Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation continued to report at smokefreegenmn.org this week that, “Youth e-cigarette use has soared to epidemic levels.” And, “More must be done to protect young people.”

Whatever is done by school districts, the Legislature, or others will be in line with directives from the World Health Organization, or WHO. As part of World No Tobacco day on May 31, WHO reasserted its abstinence-only approach to nicotine.The tobacco industry, it chastised in a statement, has “promoted e-cigarettes as cessation aids under the guises of contributing to global tobacco control.” At best, the scientific evidence supporting e-cigarettes as a cessation aid is “inconclusive,” according to WHO.

“Switching from conventional tobacco products to e-cigarettes is not quitting,” the organization reminded.

“We must be guided by science and evidence, not the marketing campaigns of the tobacco industry — the same industry that has engaged in decades of lies and deceit to sell products that have killed hundreds of millions of people,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the statement. “E-cigarettes generate toxic chemicals, which have been linked to harmful health effects such as cardiovascular disease and lung disorders.”

All the more reason for school districts across Minnesota, led by the Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation coalition, to reassert efforts this fall and this school year to curb smoking, vaping, and other irresponsible, reckless, and dangerous activities. This was the No. 1 health concern in Duluth schools and in other communities’ schools prior to the pandemic. With students returning to classrooms this fall, it can’t be allowed to reignite or reemerge.