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Underage tobacco use is up in Wisconsin, health officials raise concern about vaping


Underage Tobacco use is on the rise in Wisconsin.

In 2019, the legal age to buy tobacco rose from 18 to 21.

In that year, the rate of selling tobacco to underage people was around 5.5%. This year, it rose to 13.6%.

The annual Synar Survey shows the rate of selling tobacco to people under the legal age limit is down slightly from last year, but still much higher than what health officials want to see.

“As disheartened as I was, I suppose I wasn't as surprised as I may have could or should have been,” said Rachael Cornelius, the Community Health Educator for the Vilas County Public Health Department.

Through her work with the schools, Cornelius has seen first-hand the rise in vaping among teens.

She believes the devices, and their marketing, are one of the reasons for an increase in underage tobacco use.

Adults and teens turned to it as a coping mechanism and what they believe to be a cleaner alternative to cigarettes or smokeless tobacco products.

“I think it's just a common misconception that it's not as bad for you as smoking a cigarette or doing smokeless tobacco. Where that is, unfortunately, not true. The different things, the different additives that come in the liquid cartridges that kids or youth or adults vape, unfortunately, have very microscopic things in them that are even more harmful than a cigarette, whether it's a heavy metal or a toxin, things like that, that get put into it.”

Another factor in the rise in underage sales is the legal age change.

While federal law puts the legal tobacco age at 21, Wisconsin state law is still 18. This means it’s harder to enforce it among retailers.

Even if that is part of the reason, Cornelious says blaming retailers isn’t the goal.

“The goal is not to get anybody in any trouble. It's just to educate and understand why things are the way they are and to help people do better once we know better.”

Cornelius and other local health officials have been working in schools to support peer-led efforts to reduce vaping and other tobacco use.

“It's in its infancy stages, but a lot of what we do is we're trying to get a lot of good and quality prevention information out there to a younger youth, so upper elementary school middle school, because unfortunately, what we're seeing in the high schools is, that's more intervention than prevention,” said Cornelius.

She also recommends adults have conversations with kids.

“Having those casual, everyday conversations really do stick. The statistics have shown with the small talks in regards to underage drinking and alcohol and I think the same concept can be applied to vaping in underage tobacco use,” said Cornelius.

There is also a financial benefit to the state for keeping underage tobacco use down.

Wisconsin could lose out on millions of dollars in federal funding if the rate gets too high.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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