‘I think it’s too late:’ Hopkins students warn Gov. Walz about vaping

Gov. Tim Walz saw Minnesota’s vaping problem Tuesday through the lens of eight Hopkins High School students, who warned him that addiction is more widespread than state officials have previously said.

Gathered at a table inside a school classroom, the students said they know people who’ve gotten addicted to flavored nicotine as seventh graders. They said a recent survey of Minnesota students dramatically underreported the problem.

Some responses from the state have been ineffective, they cautioned. Instead, Minnesota and its schools must more directly warn students about vaping and target the information toward younger students, they said.

“I think people are wrapping their heads around it, but I think it’s too late,” said Claire Hering, a student who said she was addicted to flavored nicotine. “I think a lot of people are already addicted, a lot of people already own stuff, and I don’t think they’re going to be able to quit without help.”

Hering told Walz that she didn’t think she would get addicted to nicotine and has struggled to concentrate in class as she went through withdrawals. She said she has not used nicotine products for the past week.

Other students told the governor they had personal reasons for never trying flavored nicotine products – including a father who was diagnosed with cancer from tobacco use, or a sister who faced an opioid addiction.

A state-run survey of Minnesota students found that one in four high school juniors reported vaping within the past month. But the actual percentage of frequent users is closer to 30 to 40 percent, Hopkins students said.

Walz has endorsed a plan to raise the tobacco- and nicotine-buying age to 21 years old statewide. More than 50 Minnesota cities have already done so in their communities.

The first-term Democratic governor also said he was asking lawmakers to grant him broader authority to act in a public health emergency. 

The governors of Michigan and Massachusetts recently banned sales of flavored nicotine – either through their own executive authority or through regulatory powers of state agencies – but Walz has said he doesn’t have that ability. Flavored products clearly target children, public health officials have said.

Minnesota’s governor is able to take executive action in certain policy areas because of federal law, he said. That includes the creation of tougher fuel standards on cars, trucks and SUVS – something Walz did this fall – because of the federal Clean Air Act of 1970, the governor said.

But state law does not grant him clear authority to act in a health emergency because lawmakers took away the power in 2005, he said.

“If I had it, I would use it,” Walz told reporters. “I don’t have unparalleled executive authority. I will use them for emergency situations where they’re granted. I have asked (lawmakers) - this was rescinded in 2005 around health emergencies - to re-grant that power that used to belong to the executive, and that’s what I’m going to ask in the next session.”

The Hopkins students said the state needs to better address students’ mental health struggles, provide peer-to-peer connections to explain the consequences of addiction, and be more open about vaping with students in younger grade levels.

Some students turn to vaping as a release from mental health issues, they said.

“We need to talk about it. It’s a health crisis,” student Liv Steen said. “It’s not a criminal thing. It’s a health crisis.”

Another student said he walked into a school bathroom this week to find six kids vaping. Some even do it in class, he said.

“There’s certain bathrooms in the school you know, you shouldn’t go into those bathrooms because there will be people vaping,” student Jens Dohse said.