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Youth advocates rally at Capitol to end sale of flavored commercial tobacco products

On a mission to take down flavored commercial tobacco products and combat addiction, dozens of youth advocates from Minnesota rallied at the Capitol during a press conference on April 18, alongside legislators, educators and other smoke-free community advocates.

 

Youth from across the state shared stories with press about how tobacco is negatively impacting their lives, urging policymakers to better protect kids, and end the sale of flavored tobacco.

 

“The most important thing I can say to youth thinking about vaping is don’t do it,” said Da’Kwon Eppolite, a college student and Rochester youth advocate. He admits getting dangerously hooked on vaping after co-workers encouraged him to take a few puffs. “There are so many unintended consequences you can get whether you’re aware of or not – from exposure to chemicals to nicotine addiction.”

 

Eppolite cautioned youth suffering from poor mental health and stress that flavored tobacco will only make their symptoms worse over time, and won’t help. He advised kids to seek out other healthy habits and professional resources instead of vaping.

 

Jennifer Cortes, 19, a theater assistant for the Indigenous People’s Task Force, who is enrolled in the Leech Lake Tribe of Ojibwe, voiced concern for her mom’s addiction to menthol-cigarettes. Her mom promised to quit seven years ago, but she never did, and her smoking habit continues to be a difficult piece of their relationship. “Putting a ban to flavors is more than putting to the flavor, it’s putting a ban to the addiction,” said Cortes.

 

Similar testimonials to Eppolite and Cortes are conveyed in “Youth Voices,” an art exhibit containing hundreds of postcards featuring powerful personal stories from youth across Minnesota, on display in the Capitol’s North Corridor through April 25.

 

The postcards, collected by the American Lung Association in Minnesota, feature thoughts from youth ages 11-21 about how tobacco addiction has left a mark their lives, friends, family and classmates.

 

Pat McKone, Senior Director for Public Policy and Advocacy for the American Lung Association Upper Midwest, Rep. Ethan Cha, DFL-Woodbury, and Sylvia Amos, a youth and adult advocate for Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, also shared stories with press, reiterating their goal to end the sale of flavored tobacco products.

 

Both McKone and Amos, a longtime African American community leader on this issue, spoke to the loss of life from menthol tobacco use being prevalent in the Black community.

 

“It’s no accident that 81 percent of black smokers use menthol cigarettes, which are easier to smoke and harder to quit,” said Amos. “The tobacco industry has strategically and aggressively targeted my community with menthol cigarettes for decades and we suffer from tobacco related diseases at very high rates. They’ve upped their game by targeting our youth as replacement smokers for those who have died each day from tobacco use. Black lives matter to us. It’s time for all lives to matter and to stop putting profits over lives and put lives over profits.”

 

McKone emphasized that teachers, nurses, superintendents and principals are pleading for the state to do its part in helping reduce this epidemic, and that “parents are desperate to know how to better help their kids overcome anxiety and depression, which is reported among youth as reasons why they started vaping and continue to do it.”

 

Rep. Cha thanked supporters who have championed proposed legislature (HF2177) to end the sale of all flavored commercial tobacco products. The bill was laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill last month.

 

While the House is moving forward with a bill that did not include language for the flavored tobacco end of sale at this time, Rep. Cha reiterated his commitment to push forward and asked advocates to continue to write to their legislators on the importance of this issue.

 

Rep. Cha also shared a personal letter from his daughter who started vaping at a young age, stating “she didn’t realize she was addicted until she tried to quit.”

 

According to the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey, nearly 20% of Minnesota high school students reported using e-cigarettes, and 88% of those students use flavored e-cigarettes.

 

Nearly 10,000 Minnesota kids will try cigarettes for the first time each year, and studies show the number one way to combat youth tobacco addiction is to eliminate the availability of flavored products.

 

For more information on how to advocate for ending the sale of flavored commercial tobacco products, visit FlavorsHookKidsMN.org.

 

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