Nearly every day, I hear patients tell me, “If only I hadn’t started smoking as a teen … if only I could go back and talk to my teenage self.”
Almost all adults addicted to tobacco were once teens who wanted to try smoking just for the thrill of it, never imagining those first few cigarettes would lead to a lifetime of tobacco dependence.
Through my work as medical director of the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center, I see firsthand the lives forever changed and lost due to tobacco use and addiction. Among the most heartbreaking is seeing a teen addicted to tobacco.
Tobacco addiction typically begins at an early age. The increase in tobacco use among teens has been attributed primarily to the use of electronic cigarettes, vape and other electronic nicotine delivery systems. These products attract youth in particular with enticing fruit and candy flavors. Nicotine harms the developing adolescent brain, whether through a cigarette, e-cigarette or other product, and sets kids up for a lifetime of addiction.
It’s easy to become addicted with any regular exposure to standard cigarettes or the latest generation of electronic cigarettes. Kids are ill prepared for that. However, with a powerful addicting drug like nicotine, delivered by products designed to lure kids, the chance that they’ll become addicted is high.
There is no safe level of exposure to nicotine for children, and because it’s so addicting, we don’t want kids exposed at all. Restricting access will reduce the chance of that happening.
The Olmsted County ordinance to restrict tobacco purchases to those age 21 and older gives our community the opportunity to make the decision that this addicting substance shouldn’t be offered to young people younger than 21.
Now that we understand the adverse health consequences for our youth, it’s time to establish policies to help protect the health of our kids. We need to take action to keep another generation of kids growing up exposed to tobacco, addicted to tobacco and nicotine and being robbed of a healthy and long life.
Tobacco 21 policies help prevent kids from starting. We know that more than 95 percent of people who smoke start by age 18. Eliminating tobacco access to youth will reduce the chance that future generations will grow up smoking and addicted to tobacco.
Tobacco use is still Minnesota’s leading cause of preventable disability, death and disease. Stopping youth smoking also reduces excess medical costs, which are an enormous burden on individuals, families and taxpayers. It costs Minnesota an estimated $7 billion annually in health care and lost worker productivity, and takes the lives of more than 6,300 Minnesotans every year. Preventing youth from ever starting tobacco will help reduce this tremendous burden on our state.
The time to act is now. We can do better for our kids. The lives of the next generation are counting on us.