New Brighton students rally against tobacco at Capitol

submitted photo From left, Elena Parlin, Aimee Causey-Mullaney, Raniya Yimam, Elsa Ralston, Heidi Steiniger, Rep. Connie Bernardy (DFL-New Brighton), Molly Gombold, Jessica Olson, Charlotte Wise, Susan Olson, Annika Fabian and Lindsey Fabian. The young people met with Bernardy to encourage her to support tobacco use prevention legislation this session.

A group of eighth-grade students from New Brighton’s Highview Middle School joined nearly 400 youth and public health advocates from across Minnesota on Feb. 27 to rally support at the State Capitol for policies that reduce youth tobacco addiction. 

Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, a coalition of more than 60 organizations working to reduce youth tobacco use, hosted the annual advocacy day urging legislators to prioritize tobacco prevention and “Keep Lungs Loud.”

Following the rally, eighth-graders Annika Fabian, Molly Gombold, Jessica Olson, Elena Parlin, Elsa Ralston, Heidi Steiniger and Charlotte Wise met with Rep. Connie Bernardy (DFL-New Brighton) and the assistant to state Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (DFL-New Brighton) encouraging them to prioritize tobacco prevention this session. They shared personal stories of why they support tobacco prevention and cessation measures. 

“Both of them were really supportive and interested in our experiences at school,” said Fabian. “I hear and see kids at my school talking about vaping and getting together to get JUUL. I don’t like that. They can get addicted and they’re going to have a hard time stopping. They post about [vaping] on social media and they think it’s really cool. They’re going to try to persuade other kids to do it too, and I don’t want to see my classmates and friends vaping and Juuling. I want to see them staying healthy their whole lives.”

Olson said the harms of tobacco have impacted her family. “Smoke-free issues matter to me because my grandpa was a smoker and started before age 18,” she said. “He had emphysema and died of a heart attack. If these laws would have been in place when he was a kid, he would still be with us today.”

New Brighton advocates support three bipartisan bills that will help Minnesota save lives and money. The proposals would strengthen the state’s clean indoor air law, provide quit-smoking help for all residents and raise the tobacco-buying age to 21. Several lead authors of these bills joined grassroots supporters at the rally. Kunesh-Podein is a co-author of the Tobacco 21 bill.

Tobacco use remains Minnesota’s leading cause of preventable death and disease, costing an estimated $7 billion annually and taking the lives of more than 6,300 

Minnesotans every year. Smoking rates in Minnesota had been declining for decades, but the adult cigarette smoking rate has stalled out at 14 percent, and for the first time in a generation youth tobacco use has increased. In particular, the surging use of e-cigarettes is threatening the health of Minnesota teens, driving an increase in youth tobacco use that the U.S. Surgeon General has called an epidemic.

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