Gov. Tim Walz blasted the nicotine and vaping industry Wednesday in response to a new survey showing that a quarter of Minnesota 11th-graders reported using e-cigarettes in the previous 30 days, a 54% increase from 2016.

“Shame on them. It’s clearly meant to addict our children. It’s clearly meant to make a buck. You do not have the freedom to hurt our children and lie to our people,” Walz said, surrounded by officials from his administration’s departments of health and education.

Citing the recent outbreak of serious lung illnesses among some vaping teens and the danger of lifelong addiction, Walz directed his administration to ramp up a public education campaign while also preparing policy ideas for next year’s legislative session. One proposal would require nicotine buyers to be 21; another would ban nicotine products with flavors such as cotton candy and bubble gum, which Walz said are marketed to children.

Walz said he’s been advised by legal counsel that he doesn’t have executive authority to ban the flavored products without the Legislature, unlike other states such as Michigan where governors have taken strong action on their own.

The governor is likely to find bipartisan partners in the Legislature, building legislative momentum in the face of the nicotine industry’s ferocious comeback in recent years. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Nisswa Republican, also has voiced support for efforts to curb youth vaping.

The anti-vaping movement likely will face some resistance from the industry, retailers and libertarians who believe government should stay out of people’s personal decisions, especially once they turn 18.

John Rouleau, a Minnesota GOP activist, tweeted, “Flavored e-cig juice has been the only effective tobacco cessation tool for me, like it has for many others. Tried the gum, patch, lozenges. The e-cig worked. Also, last I checked I wasn’t forced to stop liking flavors when I turned 18.”

The scientific evidence on the effect of widespread vaping is still emerging. The cause of the recent outbreak of serious lung disease among some consumers of vape products is still unclear, though a new Mayo Clinic study suggests that lung injuries from vaping most likely are caused by direct toxicity or tissue damage from noxious chemical fumes. Some illnesses also may be the result of illicit THC or other drug combinations that are not in the legal vape products sold in stores.

Industry defenders say that vaping is a safer alternative to combustible cigarette smoking, and that it can be a path toward quitting nicotine altogether.

The Minnesota Department of Health survey found that even as Minnesota teens are vaping in higher numbers, fewer are smoking old-fashioned cigarettes.

But a recent article in the Journal of the American Heart Association reviewed a bevy of studies and concluded, “It is likely that the availability of e-cigarettes is leading to net increases in the numbers of both nicotine-dependent users and combustible cigarette smokers.”

The nascent vaping industry, which has ties to the traditional tobacco industry, is under increasing pressure on several fronts. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Juul Labs — which makes popular vape products — is under a federal criminal investigation. The company announced it would stop advertising and would replace its CEO.

The survey of Minnesota students showed the industry’s swift penetration into schools here. In addition to the soaring rates of use among 11th-graders, about 16% of ninth-graders said they had used a vape product in the previous 30 days, while 11% of eighth-graders said they vaped.

Schools are struggling to enforce their vaping bans in part because of product designs. Susan Nokleby, a school nurse in the western suburbs who was at Walz’s news conference, showed a variety of confiscated vaping tools to illustrate how easily they can be concealed by students. The devices resembled pens, an MP3 player, a USB device and a tube of lip balm.

The student survey showed that most students are obtaining the devices from friends. More than three-fourths of students said they believe there is either no risk or slight to moderate risk from vaping.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who has been a legislative leader in the effort to curb opioid addiction after losing his son to the disease, said Minnesotans should not be complacent.

“We just have too many questions, and the one thing we shouldn’t do is what we did with the opioids and just let it go until we figure it out. No. You know what? We can figure this out,” he said.

 

Star Tribune staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.