Health department issues back-to-school warning

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, September 13, 2018

As students return to school, the Minnesota Department of Health is issuing a health advisory regarding the latest evidence that early nicotine use increases the risks of addiction for youth now and later in life.

Nicotine primes the adolescent brain for addiction. Those exposed to nicotine are more likely to use other harmful substances, such as illicit drugs and cigarettes. Because their brains are still developing, kids and teens can become addicted to nicotine more easily than adults.

In 2017, Minnesota high-school tobacco use spiked to 26 percent; the first increase in 17 years. Much of this increase was due to e-cigarettes, with high-school e-cigarette use increasing by 50 percent in the last three years. Currently 19 percent of high school students report use.

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“Given the alarming spike in e-cigarette use among Minnesota youth, we need a full-court press to prevent another generation from getting hooked on nicotine,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. “We need to do everything we can to address this escalating risk of addiction for youth, but we can’t do this alone. This work requires the participation of parents, educators, health care providers, retailers and policy makers.”

Nearly all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, and research shows that young adults who smoke or who use e-cigarettes are much more likely to binge drink than non-smokers. Recent studies have identified similar patterns between use of nicotine and use of other drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines. What’s more, use of e-cigarettes has also been shown to predict future cigarette use among youth who have never smoked cigarettes. In fact, multiple research studies have demonstrated e-cigarette users are twice as likely to become cigarette smokers.

“Far too many teens are being introduced at an early age to e-cigarettes,” said Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “Nicotine negatively impacts learning, memory, and attention. As students start their new school year, I encourage educators, parents, and health care providers to come together and raise awareness about the dangers of e-cigarettes on our youth, so we can quickly address these troubling trends and put a full-stop to them.”

A specific product called JUUL, which looks like a USB or flash drive, now dominates more than 70 percent of the e-cigarette market. These products are easily hidden, emit limited odor, and the aerosol dissipates quickly. The JUUL pods, which are often flavored like candy or fruit, contain the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.

All tobacco use, including e-cigarette use and vaping, are prohibited by state law in public schools. It is illegal for retail merchants to sell e-cigarette products to youth under age 18.

In April, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Education sent a joint letter and toolkit to school districts across the state, warning them of the dangers of e-cigarettes and vaping products and providing them with resources for addressing the issue in schools. The letter explained how e-cigarettes have led to the first increase in teen tobacco use in nearly two decades and urges schools to alert parents and increase awareness and education about the products.

Many Minnesota communities are already taking action to keep e-cigarettes and other tobacco products out of kids’ hands. Eleven cities have raised the minimum age to buy tobacco to age 21, and some have restricted flavored tobacco products to adult-only tobacco shops.