Why Tobacco Free ND’s Mission Can Help Solve Problems in the Workplace & Beyond.
Healthy communities grow healthy businesses. The stronger our communities are, from a health perspective, the healthier our businesses can be. For nearly 40 years, Tobacco Free North Dakota has fought to repel the tobacco industry in North Dakota. We’ve had tremendous successes, through litigation with the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998 and through policy initiatives, like the implementation of the state’s strong Indoor Smoke-Free Air Law in 2012. North Dakota’s exemplary Indoor Smoke Free-Air Law created a generation of kids that don’t know what it’s like to walk into a restaurant and be asked “smoking or non-smoking seating?” The older generation knows that experience. It didn’t matter where you sat, if you shared space with people who were smoking, you were exposed to damaging secondhand smoke.
Now, we have a new threat. The tobacco industry is trying to turn back the clock and undercut the very law more than 2/3 of North Dakota voters put in place. HB 1229 before the North Dakota legislature this session seeks to create a “cigar bar and lounge exemption” to North Dakota’s smokefree air law. North Dakotans deserve to breathe clean air not tainted by secondhand smoke from cigarettes and cigars, or by vapors and aerosols from electronic products. There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. We need more people to tell their lawmakers no to this bill. If it passes and is signed into law, the state will suffer a massive public health setback.
What’s more concerning are the lies and mischaracterizations that cigar smoking is “refined, or cool, or normal.” None of these things are true. The ramifications of bringing smoking back indoors will be felt by those who work in these establishments, those who share walls with these buildings and even by those who patronize them. Again, there is no safe level of secondhand smoke.
There are assurances from supporters that this bill is an extremely small carveout for a very select clientele, and kids won’t be able to access it. There is no way to guarantee that claim. We can’t normalize smoking in public as a social activity without health consequences. Supporters say young people don’t use cigars in high numbers. That’s because of decades of dedicated work by public health officials teaching the dangers of tobacco products. TFND, along with public and private sector partnerships, sponsors numerous youth focused events including our Youth Action Summits and Tobacco Prevention Day at the Capitol to teach kids the importance of advocacy and outreach when dealing with tobacco issues. We also offer college scholarships annually through a video essay contest, allowing kids to research and tell us their feelings about tobacco products. At the end of the day, we are trying to prevent tobacco addiction, not enable it.
And it’s not just cigars we are worrying about. Seeing all types of tobacco products can lead kids to experimenting with them. The Surgeon General declared youth vaping an epidemic in 2018 due to the meteoric rise in youth usage. Congress passed a federal law in 2019 raising the purchasing age of all tobacco products to 21, the same as alcohol, and in 2021 North Dakota ratified it as state law. Even as cigarette use falls, data from the 2021 North Dakota Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows 23 percent of kids are still experimenting with tobacco products. Tobacco is tobacco is tobacco. None of these products are safe and they shouldn’t be glorified or glamorized. Tobacco products remain the greatest preventable public health risk to our kids.
In answer, TFND is taking the lead in increasing cessation services to young people. In April of 2022, in partnership with Truth Initiative, TFND launched “This Is Quitting.” North Dakota is just one of a handful of states offering this program, helping lead the way as an influencer in combatting nicotine and vaping in teenagers and young adults. The text-to-quit resource is free and confidential and is for people aged 13-24 and is proven to be more effective than quitting alone. Spearheading the campaign and here to provide more insight on the mission of TFND and its impact on the workplace is TFND’s Executive Director Heather Austin.
An Eye-Opening Q&A with Heather Austin by Josiah Kopp
This is Quitting: What’s your mission, and how does it apply to workplaces in North Dakota?
This Is Quitting is a tremendous resource for young people ages 13-24 to quit vaping. This program is specifically tailored for an age group that is often forgotten about when it comes to cessation services. Because of this, they’ve been targeted by the tobacco industry as new customers for electronic products. North Dakota, and the country as a whole, had achieved dramatic decreases in smoking rates since the late 1990s. As new vaping and electronic products have hit the market at a lightning pace, nearly 20 years’ worth of public health work has been undone as a new generation becomes addicted to nicotine. This program is one tool we have to help end the youth vaping epidemic.
How is TFND going to help shift the trend of tobacco use in our state and help kickstart that influence on neighboring states?
Kids are unfortunately exposed to tobacco products very early in life, whether through family members and friends, or through seeing product use on TV and social media, or through sales displays at the stores they visit. But they have not necessarily had the same exposure to helpful resources or support systems for fighting nicotine dependence. By connecting young people to this resource using technology they already embrace, This Is Quitting helps level the playing field against the tobacco industry, showing kids a life without nicotine is not only better, but possible.
Heather Austin stands with 2022 Video Essay Scholarship Contest Winner, Madeline Erickson from St. Mary’s High School in Bismarck.
Your target audience is everyone but ESPECIALLY the young people, teens and young adults. Why?
TFND has dedicated much of its 35+ year existence trying to keep youth from ever picking up any tobacco products. Nicotine literally rewires the brain and lights up the same reward pathway receptors and areas of the brain as cocaine and heroin. CDC data shows nearly 90% of people who become daily addicted users of cigarettes start before age 18. (which is very problematic since you have to be 21 to purchase tobacco) and 99 percent of people start before the age of 26. If we can keep people tobacco free until age 26, the chances they never pick up tobacco products increase exponentially.
How does your work at TFND impact workplaces in North Dakota?
Every business is concerned about rising healthcare costs and finding reliable employees—tobacco use makes each of these harder. A landmark study in 2014 showed that people who smoked cigarettes cost a business roughly $6,000 in lost productivity and increased health insurance costs. That’s per employee! Another study published in 2022 estimated e-cigarette users spend an additional $2,000 a year utilizing healthcare services. This is the first time we’ve ever been able to put a number to the damage of electronic nicotine products to businesses. These metrics, compounded with hiring difficulties for all business sectors are putting businesses in tough spots. The bottom line is having a healthy workforce, which is vital to business success.
What messages are resonating with people?
One of the key things to understand for anyone trying to quit tobacco products is that Every. Quit. Counts. On average it can take up to a dozen attempts to quit using tobacco products long-term. A slip-up doesn’t mean you failed. Keep persevering!
4 Ways YOU Can Help
We need people to get involved. Joining with TFND, interacting with us, interacting with policymakers, becoming a spokesperson in your community, leading youth education action projects and simply creating awareness about these issues is vital to our success. Generational problems require generational fixes. Eliminating tobacco addiction will take time, effort and cooperation from many different parties. We need people to continue to engage with TFND and become partners so we can end the cycle of tobacco and nicotine dependence.
The best four ways to do this are:
Become a member of TFND or your local Tobacco Free Coalition or Healthy Community Coalition if your area has one. Talk to the young people in your life to make sure they are aware of the dangers and can be prepared to make the important choice to stay nicotine and tobacco-free. Talk to policymakers and legislators about enacting and preserving CDC evidence-based best practice tobacco prevention policy. Share education and messaging about the dangers or tobacco or about the new quitting resources in your community, schools and groups.