My grandfather was a quiet man. I knew him only through my early teens.
My most connected memory of him is like an oil painting; a profile of him peering through the cattails of a central Minnesota pond as we waited for ducks to land near his strategically deployed decoys. It was an early morning of hunting and he was teaching me and two of my brothers how to patiently wait for waterfowl to glide in on the still glassy water.
His face was leathery but handsome. His tan field coat blended well with the aging reeds where we crouched. And his camouflage hat, which matched the one he gave me, sat slightly angled atop his silvery hair.
Every inch of his being breathed of Minnesota grandfather … until he breathed no more. He died of emphysema in 1977. He had been a smoker for most of his life. He had a real “Rat Pack” look when he had a cigarette in his hand or between his lips. But that sexy, ritualistic affair with the cigarette became the nail in his coffin. He labored painfully for each of his last breaths in this world.
Seeing him gasp for oxygen during his final days in the hospital sealed my fate as one who would never become a smoker. Oh, I tried it once, when I was a kid, thanks to the urging of a friend. My eyes watered. My nostrils burned. And my lungs immediately rebelled. This was somehow fun? It was the first and last time for me.
But for all we know about smoking and the hazards it presents to those who find it so captivating, it’s still surprisingly popular among our teens, despite years of successful efforts by the state to curb teen smoking. The downward trend of teen smoking was working until 2007 when e-cigarettes were successfully launched in the U.S.
How prevalent has it become? In 2016, 5.7% of Minnesota eighth-grade students reported vaping in the last 30 days, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Three years later, that number had doubled to 11.1%. A similar story played out for ninth graders. In 2016, 9.3% reported they had vaped in the last 30 days. But by 2019 it had jumped to 16.3%. For juniors, that number went from 17.1% to 26.4%. And just to demonstrate how alluring the e-cigarette product is to teens, 21.5% of current e-cig users have never tried any of the conventional tobacco products. This is a targeted effort, especially since the flavored approach is so attractive to teens.
These are alarming numbers when you consider just how life-altering and life-ending a relationship with nicotine can be over the long haul. According to the American Lung Association, an estimated 480,000 lives per year are lost because of tobacco use, which includes the key ingredient nicotine.
The Lung Association is urging Minnesota legislators to create a ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products, which likely will not happen this year. However, several Minnesota communities, including Robbinsdale, New Hope, Golden Valley, St. Louis Park, Edina, Lauderdale, St. Paul, Lilydale, Falcon Heights, Arden Hills, Shoreview, Rushford, Duluth, and Minneapolis, have taken this step, restricting in one form or another the sale of flavored tobacco. Although this has been met with some resistance, especially among small business owners who would be affected financially by a ban, there comes a time when the good of our youth outweighs the financial gains of a business.
A ban is not necessarily going to wipe out teen use of flavored nicotine because the black market will always be an issue, but there aren’t many parents who would willingly put a product in their child’s hands if they felt it could harm them. So why would we allow a product to be sold that is tailored to create new teen addicts? Lacing nicotine with an enticing flavor is simply sinister.
Will a ban work? Not sure. But increasing awareness among teens about the devastating impact of becoming an addict is worth our collective effort. That message must be reinforced heavily by parents, schools, public service announcements, and health insurers and providers.
The alternative will be more premature deaths. If the pandemic has taught us one important lesson, it’s that time spent with family and friends is more important than just about anything that occupied our time previously.
But to enjoy that time, we have to be here. Our chances of living a full life will be considerably greater without the temptation and the eventual shackles of nicotine and tobacco.
That duck hunting adventure was the last I shared with my grandfather. It is a wonderful memory. But for all my good thoughts of him, I am unable to shed the lasting image of his frail body in a hospital bed dying from years of smoking. — Keith Anderson is director of news for APG of East Central Minnesota