Teen smoking in Minnesota has dropped sharply since 2011, but state health officials expressed concern Monday that many young people are turning to e-cigarettes instead.
An estimated 15,000 students have tried e-cigarettes without having tried any traditional tobacco products before, according to results from the 2014 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey released Monday. Overall, 12.9 percent of high-schoolers said they had tried e-cigarettes in the 30 days prior to the survey.
By comparison, just 10.6 percent of high school students said they had smoked traditional cigarettes within the previous 30 days — down from 18.1 percent in 2011.
The survey, which included more than 4,200 students from 70 schools, suggests that e-cigarettes are now more popular among teens than the real thing.
Given looser restrictions on marketing "vaping" products, Dr. Ed Ehlinger, state health commissioner, said he worries that Minnesota youths will try the new devices and eventually develop addictions to nicotine.
"I have a real sense of déjà vu about e-cigarettes," said Ehlinger, who cited the youth marketing — now outlawed — that drew children and teens to cigarettes years ago.
A junior from Minneapolis South High School, Kendra Roedl, joined health officials at Monday's announcement and agreed that e-cigarettes have a certain appeal. The lack of pungent smoke means students can try e-cigarettes in a school bathroom or the bleachers undetected, she said. "The vapor, it's not as easy to smell," she said. "Your mom won't smell it when you get home."
Meanwhile, counter-advertising about the dangers of cigarettes has sunk in with teenagers, many of whom think it's gross when they see classmates smoking, said James Farnsworth, a junior at St. Paul Highland High School. While many students hide their e-cigarettes, they don't perceive them to be as unhealthy as cigarettes, he said.
"It's not as frowned upon as people who smoke," he said.
The public health battle against e-cigarettes has emerged even as vendors are organizing to prevent e-cigarettes from being regulated as tightly as traditional tobacco products. So-called "vapers" have said the lower-nicotine e-cigarettes helped them quit other tobacco products, though research on their effectiveness is inconclusive.
On Monday, the Independent Vapor Retailers of Minnesota was scheduled to hold a discussion in opposition to a Bloomington City Council proposal to increase e-cigarette restrictions. The American Vaping Association issued a response to the Minnesota survey, saying there is no proof in the data that e-cigarettes are "gateways to smoking," because youth vaping and smoking trends are going in opposite directions.
"At the same time that e-cigarette experimentation by Minnesota youth grew, youth usage of conventional tobacco products experienced the sharpest decline in the history of the survey," said association president Gregory Conley.
Minnesota is phasing out e-cigarette sales from kiosks, instead requiring that they be kept behind the counters of licensed vendors. As of 2015, the liquids poured into e-cigarette devices must come in child-resistant packaging.
Ehlinger said he worries that exotic and even fruity flavors of the e-cigarette liquids will be just as enticing to today's teens as Joe Camel paraphernalia was to youths years ago.
A commentary released Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted the $2 billion e-cigarette market now includes 466 brands of electronic nicotine products and 7,764 flavors such as Cherry Crush and Chocolate Treat. The commentary raised concern about the respiratory effects of the flavoring ingredients, which have received much less scrutiny from health officials than the nicotine levels contained in the liquids.
Although Minnesota bans sales of e-cigarettes to minors, access doesn't appear to be a problem. Mimi Mejia, a senior at St. Paul Highland, said she has never tried any tobacco products, but said that during cross-country running practice after school she and her teammates often passed classmates, including underage students, outside convenience stores using e-cigarettes.
Roedl said underage teens don't need to find an older buyer to obtain e-cigarettes. She found a seller on social media Sunday night. "They're a lot easier to get," she said, "than people realize."