Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that JUUL’s marketing strategy as a “safe alternative” to cigarettes “couldn’t be further from the truth” during a listening session on vaping at Hopkins High School.
The Tuesday listening session was the first of many such events the Walz administration is planning in an effort to “combat youth vaping.” Gov. Walz was joined by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, and Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, who acknowledged that “most of the lung injuries” related to vaping “seem to be associated with illegal or off-the-street THC.”
However, Gov. Walz and his colleagues were alarmed by the results of the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, which is conducted every three years and anonymously surveys students in fifth, eighth, ninth, and 11th grade. It found that while cigarette use has fallen to an all-time low, one in four Minnesota 11th-graders reported vaping in the past 30 days.
That’s a 54 percent increase from the 2016 survey, which found that 17 percent of 11th-graders reported vaping. Nearly twice as many eighth-graders reported vaping in the past 30 days compared to 11th-graders, according to the survey.
Gov. Walz and his associates met with a number of students involved in Hopkins High School’s “One Voice Coalition,” which advocates for substance abuse and mental health support among youth in the Hopkins community.
“This is a community, a school, and a state coming around and addressing what has—I don’t think it is a stretch to call it an epidemic that has exploded upon us,” Walz began his remarks Tuesday. “We were discussing on the way over here today how quickly JUUL was introduced in 2015, and just how quickly, especially over the last 18 months, how this has come upon us.”
He said JUUL has been “very strategic” in getting “folks hooked” on their product and criticized their marketing practices.
“The idea of how this was pushed as a safe alternative to smoking—nothing could be further from the truth,” the governor said.
“I want to be very clear: we are not coming here to deliver a ‘just say no’ message that is unsophisticated and doesn’t work. We’re here to ask you to help us to figure out what is the best way, how do we tailor this, and what resources do we need to put to make that happen,” he added.
Walz repeatedly stressed that the issue hits close to home for himself and Lt. Gov. Flanagan since both of them are raising children.
“This is an issue, as the governor said, that is personal to so many of us,” Flanagan said. She called it a “victory” to see an all-time low in cigarette use among students in Minnesota, which she believes is a result of youth-led anti-smoking campaigns, rather than the introduction of alternative vaping products like JUUL.
“The reason I think we were able to turn the curb on that issue is because of campaigns that were led directly by young people,” said Flanagan. “My hope is that as we do this work, and one of the reasons we’re here, is that the youth voice will be at the center of everything that we do.”
Flanagan blamed “big tobacco” for the rise in youth vaping rates and said the administration could consider increasing the age to purchase tobacco products to 21.
“I’m proud to live in a T-21 community in St. Louis Park and think that that you know may be something that we can look at,” she said. “To be absolutely clear: the big tobacco was the issue before and big tobacco continues to be the issue. They have simply just changed their mode of delivery.”
Commissioner Malcolm stressed that in order to “turn around a health crisis,” officials need to listen “to people who are directly affected by that crisis.”
“What the survey showed us, as the governor said, is this is an epidemic that’s continuing to increase at a really scary rate,” she continued. “The rates almost doubled across many age groups since the last time we did the student survey.”
She went on to claim that “there’s a real misperception around safety,” since three-quarters of 11th-graders said “they did not believe that vaping was much of a health issue at all.”
As of October 16, Minnesota had 73 confirmed or probable cases of severe lung injury linked to vaping, with three confirmed deaths related to the illness. Most reported using illegal vaping cartridges containing THC.
Tuesday’s full discussion can be watched below:
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Anthony Gockowski is managing editor of Battleground State News, The Ohio Star, and The Minnesota Sun. Follow Anthony on Twitter. Email tips to email@example.com.
Photo “Tim Walz” by Tim Walz.