Young people have had enough of combating the inequities, injustices and inaction of adults. Over the past few years, young people have been leading the fight on issues that we see impacting our communities every day, from gun violence to climate change to racial inequities. With a youth presence, voice and action, the world is starting to see these issues in a new light. However, there’s one movement lacking the presence of incredible changemakers: tobacco prevention.
Tobacco is an issue that the general population thinks is important but rarely focuses on. It’s easily overlooked due to the assumed lack of urgency. In reality, the issue impacts everyone. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in Minnesota, the United States and even globally. Yearly, tobacco causes approximately 480,000 deaths in the United States — and affects thousands more lives. It’s nearly impossible to explain how detrimental tobacco use is on families and loved ones.
The increase in tobacco use among youth and young people is no accident; rather, it is the result of a well-coordinated and well-funded effort by Big Tobacco. In 2018, the five largest cigarette manufacturers spent a total of $8.4 billion — more than $23 million a day — to advertise their products. The tobacco industry uses appealing flavors like mint, mango and strawberry cream to entice youth. It also keeps products cheap through coupons and price promotions, making tobacco more affordable and appealing to try.
In fact, 73% of advertisement money was spent on price discounting in 2018 (a whopping $6.2 billion). The tobacco industry knows it can hook kids on highly addictive nicotine products when the price for entry is as low as 99 cents (that’s the recent promotional price of a VUSE e-cigarette. VUSE is made by R.J. Reynolds).
So, what exactly has all this marketing and all these countless flavors caused? In 2020, 23.6% of Minnesota high school students used some kind of tobacco product, including e-cigarettes, vapes and combustible cigarettes. For middle school students, the tobacco use rate is 6.7% (2020). These numbers are headed in the wrong direction.
The tobacco industry’s efforts have also saddled us with $300 million per year in smoking-related illnesses. This includes $225 million spent toward direct adult health care costs, $156 million toward lost productivity, including $5.6 million toward lost productivity due to secondhand smoke exposure.
The worst impact? Worldwide, tobacco causes more than 7 million deaths per year. This must end.
I’ve spent the last four years dedicating everything to tobacco prevention. Initially, I saw tobacco use as an issue, but not one in need of me. As I learned more about commercial tobacco and how it impacts different communities and individuals disproportionately, I felt it calling my name. In the time I’ve spent working on this issue, I’ve had the opportunity to inform local policy through lobbying, conducting research on issues related to tobacco use (which would later inform policy) and helping engage other young people in this important work.
Young people are needed in tobacco prevention now more than ever. They can use their voices to stand up against corporations that are consistently preying on and damaging our generation. Thanks to the countless adults and youth who care about this issue, there are many ways that young people can get engaged. From writing letters to the editor, to lobbying at the state capitol, to creating life-changing policies at their schools or testifying at a city council meeting, young voices can make a difference.
Tobacco prevention is needed on all levels and the youth voice can make a big difference on each of those levels. Youth can elevate the message and bring a whole new perspective. That’s something tobacco prevention needs.
Anna Grace T. Hottinger is the youth advocacy and community outreach intern for the Association for Non-Smokers Minnesota. She is from Pine City, Minn.