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Anti-smoking initiative grapples with new technology

LUVERNE — From the 2007 Freedom to Breathe Act that banned smoking in indoor public spaces to recent tax hikes on tobacco products, Minnesota health care agencies continue their efforts to reduce tobacco use. And while those efforts never stop, the goal is that today, on the 38th annual Great American Smoke-Out, more people take the first step in kicking the habit.

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In Minnesota, smokers have access to a free, 24-hour Quitplan Helpline (1-888-354-7526) that provides phone counseling, free nicotine patches, lozenges or gum to eligible callers, while its website,, offers free lifetime membership, quitting tools and an option to connect online with others who have quit tobacco.

Nearly 16 percent of Minnesotans are smokers, and while smoking rates have declined since the 1970s, tobacco is still a big problem, according to Paula Bloemendaal, Tobacco Control and Policy Coordinator for the Southwest Community Health Improvement Program (C.H.I.P.).

“Hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans still smoke, and tobacco companies are always coming up with new ways to hook kids on their ever-changing products,” she said.

The latest product targeting today’s youths is the e-cigarette, an electronic (battery operated) delivery device that often contains nicotine and other chemicals. Invented in China in 2004, an e-cigarette gives people the sensation of smoking without actually lighting up.

“Rather than producing smoke because there is no tobacco in there, this battery-operated element heats up when the user inhales,” Bloemendaal said. “It producers a vapor that looks like smoke and puts off a smell.”

While originally marketed as a cessation device, Bloemendaal said e-cigarettes are anything but. The juices used in e-cigarettes — some of which claim to contain 0 milligrams of nicotine yet include nicotine as an ingredient — come in hundreds of flavors.

“People believe they’re not getting any nicotine, however, many of those products have been tested and actually have high levels of nicotine in them,” Bloemendaal said. “This type of product is not regulated at all.”

The three largest tobacco companies in the U.S., including Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard, each has its own e-cigarette product line, and Bloemendaal said “they’re putting a lot of time and money into promoting them.”

“Because they don’t fall under a traditional cigarette, they’re not restricted by the marketing and advertising guidelines,” she explained, adding that TV advertising and billboard, so far, is a legal means of promoting the products. “Their popularity now is overwhelming, I believe because they are being marketed to kids with these candy flavors and this sensation of vaping.”

With flavors like Tutti Frutti, Ginseng, Cocktail Colada and the leading favorite — Gummi Bear — Bloemendaal said tobacco companies are targeting kids and getting them hooked on nicotine. E-cigarette use is illegal for minors in Minnesota and about half of the states in the U.S., but like traditional tobacco products, if a teen wants the product, there are ways of getting it through an adult purchaser.

“The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) released a study showing that e-cigarettes among middle and high school students more than doubled between 2011 and 2012,” Bloemendaal said.

While there are no local statistics about the use of e-cigarettes, she said she’s heard from schools, parents and youths that there is a “noticeable increase” in other tobacco products among youths, such as e-cigarettes.

“Kids are experimenting with the candy and the fruit flavors with the assumption that they’re not bad for you because there’s no tobacco in them,” she said. “What we need to remember is that nicotine is a poison and it’s derived from tobacco.”

As for adults, who perhaps tried e-cigarettes as a cessation device, Bloemendaal said health officials have found that they are becoming dual users — using e-cigarettes where they may not be able to use traditional tobacco products.

“So, they’re not necessarily quitting. They’re trading one addiction for another,” she added.

Bloemendaal anticipates that legislation will be introduced in Minnesota during the next session to include e-cigarettes as part of the Freedom to Breathe Act, meaning people wouldn’t be allowed to use them in indoor public spaces.

“Because there is so much that is unknown about them, it creates enforcement issues and confusion,” she said. “In these refillable type e-cigarettes, there’s no way of knowing what’s been put in there. There could be illegal drugs put into these refillable devices.”

Southwest C.H.I.P. is sponsoring a contest for all smokers — of traditional tobacco products and e-cigarette users — in Nobles, Rock, Murray, Pipestone, Lincoln and Lyon counties of southwest Minnesota wanting to kick the habit. Whether they quit today, or by Nov. 30, participants who can cease tobacco use for an entire month will be entered into a drawing for a cash prize.

“We wanted to do the award on New Year’s Eve,” Bloemendaal said, adding that people interested in participating can let her know by calling (507) 283-5066, ext. 3017 and leaving a message, or sending an email through by clicking on the “contact us” tab.

5,100 — number of Minnesotans who die from tobacco use each year

77,000 — number of Minnesota middle- and high-school students who use tobacco

$554 per person — annual cost of smoking in Minnesota

282,000 — number of Minnesota children exposed to secondhand smoke at home

1 in 5 — number of annual deaths from smoking in the United States

107 percent — increase in e-cigarette use by kids from 2011 to 2012

100,000 — number of Minnesotans who have used QUITPLAN Services since 2001

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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