Phillips: One fad defies trend of less risky teen behavior

David Phillips

A 2019 survey of Minnesota students shows teens are engaging in fewer risky behaviors since a 2016 survey. Student smoking rates have fallen to an all-time low. Alcohol use, sexual activity and marijuana use have also fallen.

However, there is one exception to the trend: Vaping. One in every four Minnesota juniors reports using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days. That is a 54 percent increase from the 2016 survey.

The Minnesota Departments of Education, Health, Human Services and Public Safety collaborate with schools to administer the statewide survey, which is the primary source of comprehensive data on youth at the state, county and local level in Minnesota.

The dramatic decline in cigarette smoking — and opposite trend in e-cigarettes — is worth digging into a little deeper as the local survey results show Fillmore County generally mirrors the state trends.

Going back to 2004, the first year in which state survey results are available, 48 percent of male seniors and 39 percent of female seniors in Fillmore County schools reported smoking cigarettes in the 30 days prior to the survey. Daily cigarette use was reported by 15 percent of males and 5 percent of females in the senior classes of Fillmore County schools.

The most recent survey doesn’t break the results down by sex and the oldest class surveyed is the junior class, so the comparisons aren’t exact, but only 15 percent of juniors in Fillmore County had smoked a cigarette in the 30 days prior to the 2019 survey. A total of 4 percent of juniors had smoked daily in those 30 days.

Although quite a drop, that percentage is still three to four times greater than the state average. In all of Minnesota, only 5 percent of juniors smoked cigarettes in the 30 days prior to the survey and just 1 percent are daily smokers.

Vaping by local youth is identical to the state average with 26 percent of Fillmore County juniors reporting using e-cigarettes in the 30 days prior to the survey. However, a higher percentage of juniors in Fillmore County — 11 percent — vape every day while the state figure is 7 percent.

Vaping is even making inroads among eighth graders, who were also surveyed statewide. In Fillmore County, 14 percent used e-cigarettes in the 30 days prior to the survey, which is above the state average of 11 percent. However, just 1 percent of local eighth graders vape every day.

The drop in traditional cigarette smoking among youth follows the trend in adults, although the adult rate is still higher. A total of 42 percent of the adult population smoked 50 years ago, which has dropped to 13.9 percent in 2017, an all-time low.

Increased knowledge about the dangers of smoking contributed to the drop, but experts credit the combination of cigarette price increases, anti-smoking campaigns, smoke-free laws, and access to cessation programs as most effective in getting people to quit, or never start.

However, those policies haven’t carried over to e-cigarettes.

While more than 80 percent of people in the United States believe smoking cigarettes is very harmful to their health, fewer than half believe the same thing about vaping; among young people under 30 years old, just one in five believes vaping is very harmful to their health, according to a 2018 Gallup Survey.

E-cigarette companies, primarily Juul, which owns 70 percent of the market, have copied many of the big tobacco company tactics to go after young people to get them hooked on nicotine. Tobacco giant Altria (owner of Philip Morris USA), not coincidentally, bought a 35 percent share in the company and has a former executive running Juul.

A recent Congressional investigation found that Juul targeted kids as young as 8 with a sophisticated marketing program. Juul’s youth-centered marketing approach included summer camp, school programs and hundreds of social media influencers.

Who else are e-cigarette companies trying to entice with flavors such as gummy bear and cotton candy? Most high school tobacco users report using flavored products and 88 percent of all students report seeing advertisements promoting e-cigarettes, according to the state survey.

Three-quarters of new e-cigarette users had never smoked before.

Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, a coalition of more than 60 organizations with a goal of reducing youth smoking, has urged state lawmakers to take a comprehensive, multi-layered approach to the teen nicotine crisis. During the 2020 legislative session, it will advocate for comprehensive steps to stem youth tobacco addiction, including Tobacco 21, prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products, investing in youth prevention and increasing tobacco prices.

To date, 55 Minnesota communities have enacted Tobacco 21, which raises the age of purchasing tobacco to 21. With almost 95 percent of addicted adult smokers starting before age 21, raising the age is expected to reduce teens’ ability to buy tobacco products themselves or to access them through older friends and other social sources.

The National Academy of Medicine estimates a 25 percent reduction in smoking among 15- to 17-year-olds, if the tobacco age is raised to 21.

Olmsted County is the closest jurisdiction to implement Tobacco 21. Some small towns have recently taken the step, including Adams, home to Southland High School in Mower County.

Ten communities in Minnesota have restricted the sale of all flavored tobacco products, four of which completely prohibit their sale.

Rushford’s City Council recently held a hearing on tobacco regulations as a group of concerned citizens recommended an ordinance banning retail sales of vaping and electronic cigarettes as well as menthol and flavored cigarettes. The group also proposed raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 years old.

Many people, including students, school officials and county officials, testified at the hearing, but no action has been taken so far regarding the proposed local ordinance.

Fillmore County Public Health officials brought the issue up at a recent County Board meeting. Commissioners asked many questions and inquired how to update the county ordinance to address vaping, but no action has been taken yet.

E-cigarettes make up a relatively new phenomenon as they hit the market just 16 years ago with youth-oriented marketing coming years after that.

While the campaign to reduce smoking took decades to get to the point where we are today, it is stunning how quickly — and strongly — e-cigarettes have taken hold.

It’s no surprise that officials are behind this rapidly evolving trend. However, it shouldn’t be hard for them to determine the proper action. They have a blueprint from the anti-smoking campaign of the past 50 years that produced remarkable results.