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Trying to snuff out tobacco use: Minnewaska students visit Capitol, talk with legislators

Amy Reineke

To Hope Braaten, changing the tobacco age from 18 to 21 is a no-brainer.

Braaten is a youth advocate who, along with many of her peers, is on a mission to create a tobacco-free generation.

"Increasing the tobacco age will prevent 30,000 Minnesota kids from becoming smokers over the next 15 years," said Braaten, an eighth-grader in the Minnewaska School District. "It's common sense."

Amy Reineke, a health educator with Horizon Public Health, which serves Douglas and several other counties, brought a group of eighth-grade students from the Minnewaska district to the Minnesota state Capitol last month for a rally that drew more than 350 youth and other advocates from across the state.

The Minnewaska students got the chance to meet with three state legislators: Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck; Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley; and Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake.

Their message?

According to student Dakota Holder, they want state legislators to sign onto two bills that are being considered by the Legislature — Tobacco 21, a bipartisan bill that would raise the tobacco age from 18 to 21, and the Cessation Funding bill, which would invest in statewide quit-smoking services.

QuitPlan, the free program currently available to all Minnesotans, will end in early 2020. If the Legislature doesn't act soon, Minnesota will become the only state in the nation that does not provide these services, Reineke said.

The students believe that raising the age to 21 will help prevent youth tobacco use and save lives.

A recent study by the Minnesota Department of Health underscored the need for youth tobacco prevention. The 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found youth tobacco use increased for the first time in 17 years. More than 26 percent of high school students in Minnesota reported using tobacco products, according to the survey.

Reineke, who focuses on youth tobacco prevention and education, said it's not necessarily cigarettes that students are attracted to anymore. Instead, it is electronic cigarettes or e-cigs, especially a device called JUUL or Juice USB Lighting.

Instead of burning tobacco, e-cigs most often use a battery-powered coil to turn a liquid solution into an aerosol that is inhaled by the user. E-cigs, according to Reineke, still contain nicotine, which she said is still harmful to anyone's health. She also said that e-cigs can be used as a delivery device for other substances, such as marijuana.

JUUL, which was unveiled in 2015, is an e-cigarette that looks similar to a USB flash drive and can be charged in a USB port of a computer. Reineke said JUUL is popular with students because of the flavors it comes in — cool mint, creme brulee, fruit medley and mango, among others.

"E-cigs, especially JUUL, are super attractive and are currently trending with our youth," Reineke said. "These are manipulative products that are a public health issue. They are not safe to use."

The Minnewaska students said the legislators had great questions about e-cigs and JUUL, including what they are and how they are used.

"JUUL and e-cigs are a problem with our youth," said student Amanda Duff, noting how it looks like a USB drive and is easy to sneak and use. "We want these products out of our school, but students who are 18 have them and can give them to younger students."

Student Kaitlyn Pederson said the group attending the rally is involved in tobacco prevention and education events because they are trying to create a tobacco-free environment.

"We want to create a smoke-free generation and stay healthy," Pederson said. "We also want less access to these types of products and to make it harder for youth to get them."

The students said they enjoyed their time at the Capitol and visiting with the legislators. Reineke said the students did a "fantastic job" of sharing stories of what they see and what products their peers are using.

"The opportunity was really fun and the legislators told us it's not often that youth from their communities come and visit," said Duff. "They really appreciated having us there."

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. She enjoys running and has participated in nearly 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon distances.

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