In the film Back to the Future II, self-lacing shoes were the apparel of the 2010s. Instead, in 2018, we have e-cigarette integrated sweatshirts and backpacks.
Wiring in the clothing allows wearers to plug their e-cigarette into hidden adapter and vape through a mouthpiece, sometimes disguised as a drawstring or backpack strap. The new devices that connect to these products are easily disguised or mistaken for flash drives, and the vapor users exhale doesn’t have a distinctive and lingering scent like combustible cigarettes.
“It feels like students are always a few steps ahead,” said Sadie Holland, a prevention education manager at the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge (MNTC), which runs the drug education and prevention program Know The Truth.
Vaping is a hot-button topic at the moment, from the nation’s capital to Eden Prairie city council chamber, where the council recently passed an ordinance to raise the city’s tobacco purchasing age to 21, effective Feb. 1, 2019.
Teenage nicotine use has been on the rise for several years, thanks in large part to the popularization of e-cigarettes and vaping devices like JUULs. The low-odor vapors and sleek devices allow vaping to fly under the radar in hallways and homes.
The Minnesota Department of Health has conducted the Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey since 2000 to track teenage tobacco and e-cigarette use. In 2017, more than one in four high school students used a tobacco product in the 30 days prior to the survey, up seven percent from 2014. One in five high school students had used or tried e-cigarettes in the 30 days before the survey, a 49 percent increase from 2014.
Unlike many adults who smoked combustible cigarettes for years before switching to vaping devices, one in five current e-cigarette users have never tried any conventional tobacco product, like a cigarette or cigar.
In the last decade, e-cigarettes have evolved from bulky and expensive to fashionable and easily available, and Minnesota surveys are scrambling to track changing trends. The Minnesota Student Survey is a triennial survey; in 2016, the survey asked first question about e-cigarette use to the 169,000 public school students who took the survey. The next iteration of the survey, in 2019, will ask seven questions about e-cigarettes and vaping.
Another major concern is the prevalence of flavored nicotine products. Vapers can load their e-cigarettes with cartridges of nicotine fluid with added cherry, vanilla, crème, melon and tropical flavors. Two out of three tobacco retailers in Hennepin county sell the flavored products that 67 percent of young users are smoking.
The FDA recently condemned the tobacco industry’s flavored products and targeted advertising in a Nov. 15 statement. It intends to pursue a measure that would only allow flavored nicotine products for sale in “age-restricted, in-person locations and, if sold online, under heightened practices for age verification.”
EDUCATION AND PREVENTION
Vaping is a trendy topic in Roxy Myhre’s Eden Prairie High School health class.
“Kids ask what’s so bad about it because they think it’s safe,” Myhre said.
Students often walk in at the beginning of the quarter with the impression that “addiction is something you can control,” Myhre added. “We always talk about how it can happen to anyone.”
EPHS’s quarter-long health class, composed mainly of sophomores, covers topics far beyond drug and alcohol use. The “skills-based” curriculum emphasizes discovery over statistics aims to equip students with skills to make healthy choices in their daily lives, like journaling, resistance to peer pressure and self-care.
Myhre and her guest presenters from Know The Truth find themselves combating the perception that vaping is “healthier.” Information is a powerful tool here: despite the name, students are sometimes surprised to learn that e-cigarettes contain nicotine and harmful chemicals.
Another tool is the relatability brought by the Know The Truth program. The presenters are young, local, and have personal experience with the topics they discuss. Most are recovering addicts, and many have spent time in jail. They share their experiences and advice with the class and answer every question from students.
When Kheng Lor, a volunteer with Know The Truth, spoke with Myhre’s class on Dec. 6, the students’ questions ranged from “What did your mom say when she found out?” to “What is jail like?”
Holland values the space that EPHS and Know the Truth create by hosting these presentations.
“We’re responsible as a community for our youth,” she said. “How do we create a safe space for students to talk about what they’re doing?”
Throughout Myhre’s 23 years of teaching, former students return to tell her just how much the class meant to them.
“My favorite line is — I hear this every quarter — ‘I actually like this class’,” she said. And with enjoyment, comes utility: “I am 100 percent certain that we’ve saved kids lives,” Myhre said.
Legislatures are already reacting to what the FDA has called an “epidemic” of teenage nicotine use. Since 2014, cities in 22 states have passed legislation raising tobacco purchasing age to 21. Some have tackled the flavor market as well, with 10 Minnesota cities limiting the availability of flavored nicotine products.
Edina became the first Minnesotan city pass a tobacco 21 law in May 2017, and 19 other Minnesotan cities and counties have followed suit since, including Excelsior, Minnetonka and Minneapolis. Eden Prairie will join them on Feb. 1, 2019, when the new tobacco 21 ordinance goes into effect.
Laura Smith is a public affairs manager with Clearway Minnesota and worked closely with Eden Prairie city staff leading up to the council’s decision.
“We’re thrilled with the decision,” Smith said.
The Eden Prairie campaign “happened more quickly than with other movements,” she said. Oftentimes, legislative action months or years because “people don’t see every day the impacts of nicotine use” in the same way that they did 30 years ago.
Clearway Minnesota has counted its Metro victories and set its sights on Greater Minnesota. The eventual goal is a nationwide change, but as with many grassroots movements, local action has been quicker and more easily achieved so far.
“We’re not going to sit back and wait” for the industry to regulate itself, Smith said. “We know these groups are targeting youth.”
The council’s brief debate of the issue pitted purchasing power and personal freedom against public health. Council member Brad Aho and council member, and mayor-elect, Ron Case discussed their views in the Dec. 4 council meeting. Although he is “very against smoking,” Aho expressed concern about the effect on Eden Prairie’s 23 tobacco retailers and advocated for a statewide policy.
Case emphasized the related medical and societal costs of nicotine addiction in his reasoning, saying that “sometimes it’s a case of not just the freedom.”
“There’s all kinds of laws out there that we look at that help people make healthier decisions,” Case said.
Eden Prairie’s tobacco 21 ordinance will go into effect on Feb. 1, 2019.