Surgeon general visits Mpls., warns of vaping and legalized pot

Public health officials who failed to slow teenage vaping shouldn’t make another mistake by allowing marijuana to be legalized, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Tuesday during a speech in Minneapolis.

Adams was the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Tobacco or Health, where he disputed that recreational marijuana should be allowed for social justice reasons. He said a legalization push would “repeat the same mistake” that allowed the teenage vaping epidemic.

“Many of the same players are out there,” Adams told about 2,000 public health administrators from across the country. “They’re out there getting ready to jump into this – or already jumping into this – so they can prey on young people in our communities once again.”

Adams, who grew up on a tobacco farm, said his grandfather died of complications from lung cancer. He declared the vaping situation an epidemic late last year, after teenage tobacco usage increased in 2018 after two decades of decline.

Health officials in 22 states are now investigating more than 200 cases of lung injuries that could be caused by vaping. In Minnesota, there are 15 confirmed or suspected cases. Last week, Illinois health officials said a patient had died, the first reported death linked to vaping.

Adams said public health officials in recent years have been too focused on cigarette use and missed the rise in vaping.

“We’re going to have some hard family talk here, y’all. Some of that is our fault,” Adams said. “We didn’t skate to where the puck was going. At least, not all of us. At least not with as much gusto as we should have.”

Adams said teachers and parents are “terrified” that the vaping trend is exploding as teenagers head back to school this fall. An official with the Minnesota Department of Health said she was bombarded with questions from teachers on the subject at the Minnesota State Fair this week.

“It was a steady stream for four hours of teachers that are very concerned about the widespread epidemic,” said Laura Oliven, the state’s tobacco control manager.

The state Health Department estimates that 20 percent of all kids use e-cigarettes, but some teachers said the actual number was much higher, Oliven said.

Adams said public health officials need to do a better job of outreach to minority communities over nicotine addiction and negative health effects.

Later, he veered into his concerns about marijuana. Adams compared claims of improved health outcomes to similar assertions about tobacco use before the 1960s.

“I’m going to get in trouble over here, I really am,” Adams said. “People want to talk about social justice. I’ve got to tell you, we already have a liquor store and a smoke shop on every corner in every minority community. I don’t see how adding a marijuana dispensary to that is going to make it better.”

Those comments will likely add fuel to a debate at the state Capitol, where House Democrats say legalized marijuana will be a top priority in the 2020 legislative session.

In a recent editorial, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said decriminalizing recreational marijuana would allow people to treat illnesses. Law enforcement would be able to divert resources to other priorities instead of going after low-level drug offenses, he said.

“Marijuana legalization is underway in the United States. Minnesota cannot avoid this reality and should not hide from the inevitable,” said Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “Instead, we should recognize the harms potentially caused by criminalizing marijuana (or cannabis), and should work to create nation-leading legislation for legalizing, regulating and taxing cannabis for responsible adult use.”