One in five Minnesota high school students reports vaping in the past 30 days, according to the 2020 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey (MYTS). Harmless? Hardly. Vaping exposes young lungs to a variety of chemicals and can lead to lung injury. And vaping — easy to start — is very hard to quit. That's likely why e-cigarette manufacturers target youth with enticing flavors like Caribbean Freeze, mango and Sour Patch Kids. One promising approach to helping teens quit? Other teens. We talk this week with youth vaping prevention adviser Ashley Zhou, a 10th-grader at Wayzata High School. Ashley is the winner of last year's Escape the Vape video contest — a collaboration between the Minnesota Department of Health and other organizations working to reduce youth e-cigarette use.

Q: Let's start by getting to know you a bit. Family? Favorite school subjects? Hobbies?

A: I live in Plymouth with my parents, my grandparents and two cats. My older sister is a freshman at Northwestern University studying journalism. I like biology and band (flute), dance team, watching movies, playing card games and editing videos.

Q: You were in 9th grade when you won the Escape the Vape contest, beating out more than 110 other teens from across the state. So, first, congratulations. And, second, what drew you to this public health issue?

A: I did not know much about vaping, aside from learning in health class that you shouldn't do it. But we never really discussed it in social settings. The opportunity to create the video came up in a service club I belong to. I wanted to spread awareness and I'm also interested in video editing and stop-motion techniques, so it was a perfect opportunity. It was a chance for me to get out of my comfort zone and be creative.

Q: Did you ever try vaping?

A: No, I have not.

Q: Do a lot of your friends vape?

A: Not that I know of, but at the lunch table we talk about it because every day, when we go into the school bathroom, there is probably going to be someone in there vaping.

Q: And it's probably scary to say something? A: A big part of the issue is that you don't want to tell people what they should or shouldn't do. I don't really feel like it's my place to say, "You shouldn't vape. Or you shouldn't do this or that." It's their life. So I think it's more difficult for individual students to try to stop their friends from vaping.

Q: So maybe a video like the one you created is a good way to start a conversation?

A: I think it's way more effective in raising awareness. When an adult or teacher tells us to do something, our instinct is to rebel. But since Escape the Vape is all about teens sending a message to other teens, I think it's a lot more impactful. Still, a video isn't going to cause someone to stop, but it's a wake-up call, and hopefully will be a spark to make them take a step back and say, "I could be doing something else."

Q: Was it fun to create your video? How long did it take you?

A: It was really fun actually. I had no idea what I was doing going into it, but I took inspiration from a few YouTubers I follow. Brainstorming, writing and editing took about 10 hours, plus another 10 hours for the actual production. I got my sister and her friends to do the voices.

Q: Was there a monetary prize attached? If so, what did you do with it?

A: The prize was $1,000, half to my school and half to me. We haven't done anything with the money yet. Hopefully, we can find a nonprofit to donate it to or put it toward college.

Q: And you'll be a judge for this year's Escape the Vape competition?

A: I am! The creators invited the finalists from last year to serve as youth advisers. We're helping them figure out how to expand the project and audience. We've already started to do that by adding middle schools.

Q: That's good. I just read that 3% of middle schoolers reported having vaped in the past 30 days. Why do you think kids that young turn to e-cigarettes?

A: From my eyes, it's a status symbol ... the "cool kids" are vaping. That's part of it. And a lot probably has to do with mental health issues; it's their way of coping. There's also peer pressure, social pressure, to do it.

Q: And you've noted that marketers make it look like a lot of fun.

A: The way vaping is marketed, people think it's a lot safer than smoking cigarettes.

Q: Like, how could you not trust something packaged to look like Sour Patch Kids, right?

A: Honestly, as terrifying as it is, it's expected. The goal of the e-cigarette manufacturing company is to make money. Their target demographic is teens or at least it has evolved into that. This means e-cigarette companies can easily take advantage of their consumers. There should be a lot more regulation about what they can and cannot claim.

Q: Is cost a factor in getting kids to quit? Vaping can cost up to $100 a month or more.

A: It is really costly to get the vape pens and refill cartridges. But at a certain point, money is not going to be an issue. Users will find a way to get the money to do it.

Q: What do you think is the best way to get young people to stop vaping — or better, yet — not start?

A: This is a big part of influencing how I structured my video. Scare tactics are not necessarily the right way to approach it. You don't want to be told you're damaging your body. It's better to say, "Here are some reasons why you might have fallen into this and here are things you can do to get help." Not having a judgmental view or a scary view can resonate a lot more with people who want to quit vaping. If they become addicted, it's not entirely their fault. It shouldn't be the responsibility of a teen to not be taken advantage of. It should be the responsibility of lawmakers and adults to protect them from it in the first place.

Escape the Vape submissions welcome

Escape the Vape, a youth vaping prevention video contest, is seeking submissions through February. Minnesota middle and high school students are invited to create and submit a 30-second public service announcement (PSA) video to educate their peers on the dangers of e-cigarette use, also known as vaping. Submissions will be entered into a competition for cash prizes for both students and their schools. For more information, go to Escape the Vape.