HIBBING — With teen vaping cresting epidemic levels, two representatives from Hibbing’s Chemical Health Coalition appealed to city councilors Monday evening to increase the city’s minimum sales age for all tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Lori Kolden and Jeff Vlatkovich, both longtime coalition members, told councilors during a Committee of the Whole meeting that they’ve joined forces with Amanda Casady, a tobacco control program manager with the American Lung Association in Duluth, in hopes of introducing the Tobacco 21 — or T21 — initiative in Hibbing.

Currently there is no preemption language in state law preventing cities from raising the minimum sales age for tobacco, leaving local governments free to enact ordinances like T21, which aims to “protect young people from a lifetime of addiction and health problems caused by tobacco.”

During the meeting, Kolden showcased a packet of statistics backing the coalition’s stance that a T21 policy would not only benefit the community but also the school district — particularly when it comes to the rising trend throughout the state of e-cigarette use, also known as vaping.

Referencing a recent conversation with the activities director at Hibbing High School, Kolden, a former educator, told councilors, “The increase of violations for [student] athletes due to vaping had doubled their number of violations overall in the last seven years.” She continued, “There were 42 athletes who either couldn’t participate or had some sort of penalty last year.”

And of the 42 violations, 25 were vaping related.

Kolden added that HHS Activities Director Megan Potter insisted the spike in athlete violations is unlike anything they’ve seen before. She went onto say that it’s not only the prevalence of vaping but also the potency that is problematic.

Hibbing not immune to nationwide epidemic

Earlier this month, the state Department of Health released data showing that the U.S. Surgeon General has been calling teen e-cigarette use an epidemic.

The 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found that nearly 20 percent of high school students use e-cigarettes and 40 percent have tried them.

To put it in perspective, Kolden explained that despite manufacturers’ claims otherwise, research has found that the nicotine in a single vaping “pod” is equivalent to two packs of cigarettes and many students vape one pod each day — “and that’s just in the beginning stages.” She added, “The nicotine is so addictive that within one week, that young person already has a craving for nicotine.” And many students, she said, vape as many as four pods a day.

In Hibbing, she was jarred to learn in recent weeks that Lincoln Elementary School staff have been encountering children as young as 9 years old vaping.

“I think most of us would not want to realize that 9 year olds could already be inflicted with having this at their disposal,” Kolden said, noting that the tobacco suppliers are often older siblings.

Piggybacked onto that, Vlatkovich, an Assistant St. Louis County Attorney, said that currently there are 18 year olds leaving local schools during lunch to buy tobacco products and then distribute them to their underage classmates.

Members of the Coalition say they now hope councilors will enact the T21 policy and block the ease of access in schools, where vaping is nearly impossible to regulate due to the lack of odor and the easily disguised vaping pens. The Hibbing Community College has also expressed their support.

Mayor hesitant to change tobacco age

After listening to the initial presentation, Hibbing Mayor Rick Cannata appeared surprised to learn that T21 encompasses more than vaping products. “I could maybe go with the vaping but to ban all tobacco products — that’s getting a little harsh, you know?” Cannata said. “But, that’s only my opinion on it. I thought it was just the vaping part of this.”

Cannata, a self-declared tobacco smoker who took up the habit at age 18, went on to say, “City governments have a hard enough time just trying to do what they have to do and now we’re going to become the parenting police of everything.”

Cannata insisted the issue falls more on parents than city councilors and couldn’t agree with logic that might deny soldiers “fighting for our freedom” the right to buy a pack of cigarettes when they return home from war. In response, both Kolden and Vlatkovich remarked that the American Lung Association backs the T21 policy as a whole and may not be on board with dicing it up to increase the sales age for only certain products.

Vlatkovich went on to say they can’t ignore the fact that some kids are secretly vaping all day at school. “We have a product now we’ve never seen before and it’s way more addictive — don’t fool yourself,” he said.

As discussion continued, Kolden shared that the issue extends beyond nicotine as teens are pairing vaping devices with other drugs. Not only that, she personally knows several area teenagers who were hospitalized this summer over being “nic sick.”

“They smoked so much, did so much vaping, that they were physically vomiting, diarrhea sick, hospitalized to the point that their parents were called and said that they felt these children had holes in their esophaguses just from vaping for maybe a year and a half,” she said. “And they’re 17 year old boys.”

She told everyone how the smoke-free indoor air law began at the local level and worked its way up. Though there are communities across the state have passed the T21 policy, very few are in the Northland, she said, before challenging councilors to consider the message they’d be sending the community if they choose not to pass it.

Cannata again aired his frustration over the notion that the American Lung Association may not work with them if they try to funnel T21 down to just a vaping ban.

Hearing that, Dr. Jan Baldwin, a coalition member from Essentia Health Family Clinic in Hibbing introduced herself at the podium and told the council, “What’s different about nicotine is that 90 percent of people that get addicted get addicted before 21. In fact some statistics I’ve seen is 95 percent. So this is a place where the age really makes a big difference. And this isn’t about the American Lung Association. This is about public health.”

Kolden closed the presentation with some strong words about how society’s “breakdowns” are affecting youth and their ability to make good, informed choices. “Let’s not kid ourselves with what today’s society is like,” she said. “In the 30 years that I taught and since I retired in the last year and a half, I’m so grateful to not be an educator from the fact that I don’t know how I could ever combat what I see going on in schools now...”

Kolden concluded, “The responsibility can not be on our parents, our communities at large or our teachers unless it starts with our city council first.”

•••

How do Hibbing Public Schools tobacco use rates compare to the rest of the state?*

• 24% of 11th graders have used tobacco vs. 17% statewide

• 15% of 11th graders have specifically used e-cigarettes

*Statistics from the American Lung Association in Minnesota

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