While the number of Minnesota teens vaping e-cigarettes has stubbornly stayed flat, a growing number of students who do are vaping marijuana despite increasing public health campaigns and local laws curbing e-cigarette sales.

In 2020, 1 in 5 Minnesota high schools students reported using e-cigarettes. Of those students 65% vaped marijuana — nearly double the rate in 2017, according to a new study by the state Department of Health. Among the 3% of middle school students who used e-cigarettes, 72% vaped marijuana in 2020, up from 16% in 2017.

The pandemic is adding new concerns about vaping, since smokers are at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus and e-cigarettes can damage lung tissue.

"We're seeing a big addiction crisis building and we need a comprehensive approach," said Laura Smith of ClearWay Minnesota, a foundation established with funds from the state's 1998 tobacco settlement. "We continue to be concerned about the health crisis of e-cigarette use."

In the new state study, 78% of students reported that the first tobacco product they ever tried was flavored.

A growing number of Minnesota cities and counties have passed e-cigarette restrictions, with 21 communities regulating flavored tobacco products.

Next week, the Prior Lake City Council plans to consider a ban on the sale of flavored vaping items. And a bill at the Legislature seeks to end sales of menthol and all flavored tobacco products.

ClearWay is one of more than 60 organizations in a coalition called Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation that supports the bill and investments in tobacco prevention and treatment.

"We need to continue doing the policy things that we know worked for reducing youth cigarette smoking," Smith said. "We need to keep the momentum going."

In fact, the number of students smoking cigarettes and cigars has dropped to the lowest rate on record, with only about 3% of high school students smoking cigarettes.

When Elyse Levine Less talks to students about tobacco, they call cigarettes disgusting and horrible. But e-cigarettes are new and don't look like what they understand nicotine to be, she said.

"These are kids who would not smoke cigarettes," said Levine Less, executive director of the Tobacco-Free Alliance. "This reinforces the need for interventions to protect youth from these dangerous products. It's not just policy, it's not just education. It's all of these pieces working together to create change."

Ella Wiggenhorn, 18, a senior at Mounds View High School, has seen vaping become increasingly popular among her peers in memes and TikTok posts. She avoids going to the bathroom during class because classmates sneak in to vape.

"That style of life is really glorified on social media," Wiggenhorn said, adding that social media, not adult lectures, will combat vaping. "Don't get started in the first place. It's not worth it."

The state has launched a free program to help teens quit smoking called "My Life, My Quit." Details can be found at MyLifeMyQuit.com or by texting "Start" to 36072.

In the state study, which the department has done since 2000, 70% of students who used e-cigarettes reported one or more signs of dependence, such as reaching for an e-cigarette without thinking about it.

The pandemic has also increased mental health issues, which could drive up tobacco use, Smith said. That, along with the health disparities among Minnesotans of color, adds fresh urgency to anti-tobacco efforts, she said.

"We know this problem isn't going away," Smith said. "We need to do more."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141