E-cigarettes are the new nicotine delivery system and Minnesota high schoolers are hooked. E-cigarettes deliver high doses of nicotine, which interferes with normal brain development in young people — causing disrupted attention, learning, predisposition to nicotine addiction and even cancer. Over the past five years, Minnesota has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of high schoolers smoking nicotine-containing electronic cigarettes. It’s been reported that 1 in 5 high school students in Minnesota admits to daily E-cigarette smoking.
In Hennepin County alone, yearly excess medical and tax costs related to nicotine dependence and tobacco use amount to $585 million of taxpayer dollars, that is $750 per household respectively. With the rapidly rising rate of E-cigarette use, it is safe to predict that increasing funds will be spent treating its future outcomes like addiction, cancers and lung diseases.
Many teens lack information about nicotine
In a Sept. 15 Star Tribune article, Cathy Rude, a community health specialist with Hennepin County, blamed misinformation and a lack of information about the health dangers of the nicotine contained in E-cigarettes as a reason for the continued rise in popularity. National data shows that 63 percent of high schoolers and their parents do not know that most E-cigarettes contain nicotine; neither do they know of the dangers and addictive nature of nicotine. Tobacco companies are marketing E-cigarettes as a healthier alternative to smoking regular cigarettes and they have adapted their products to appeal to young people. Nine of 10 E-cigarettes users admit that they smoke it because of its fruity flavor. High schoolers admit that peer pressure, curiosity and the “cool factor” were some of the reasons they smoke E-cigarettes. The major cause of this rise in E-cigarette use is the easy availability and access — there is no age restriction when buying E-cigarettes from most online retailers.
Politically, it is difficult to regulate the online retailers that make E-cigarettes easily accessible to youth due to difficulty enforcing the laws. Another policy that might have led to this epidemic is the ban, stigmatization and taxation of regular cigarettes — which led to fewer people smoking cigarettes and financial loss, subsequently leading to the tobacco companies devising new ways to attract and appeal to young people.
What have we done so far?
Minnesota has moved ahead of the curve in the fight against E-cigarettes by implementing policies that ban the use of E-cigarettes in public places and school grounds. Minnesota also put a policy in place that bans the sale of E-cigarettes over the counter to anyone under 18 years. Despite all these laws, numbers are still rising; it is obvious that these policies are not doing enough to stop high schoolers from taking up E-cigarettes.
What needs to be done?
A major cause of this problem is easy E-cigarette accessibility online. Laws against E-cigarettes have not taken into account that high schoolers are internet savvy and will prefer to purchase E-cigarettes online. Therefore, it is important to implement a law banning the online sale of E-cigarettes, in the same way regular cigarettes can’t be sold online. Minnesotans reaped the benefits of that law; the rates of regular cigarette smoking in the Minnesota has been dropping ever since.
It is important that this problem is tackled early because research indicates that adolescence is an important time for influencing tobacco use and associated behaviors. About 98 percent of adult tobacco users started the use of tobacco at a young age. Big E-cigarette companies like JUUL maintain that their products are intended to help smokers quit, but a close look at their marketing strategy shows that they target young people. Due to these reasons, it is of utmost importance that legislators pass laws to ban the online sale of E-cigarettes.
If nothing is done, we might have to face the consequences of potential cancers, bear the cost of addiction treatments and rehabilitations. It is vital that we remember lessons learned from the regular cigarette epidemic in order to contain this E-cigarette epidemic and protect Minnesota’s future.
Fredrick Machi Ogugua is a physician and graduate student in Health Policy & Administration at the University of Minnesota.
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