Johnson High School students take on menthol tobacco

Johnson High School students PaChia Xiong, PaDer Yang, Nouchi Vang, Xai Sarah Lee, Shaun Vang and group leader Tou Thai Lee have been going out into the community this summer to educate people about the dangers of menthol cigarettes. submitted photo

A group of Johnson High School students has been busy this summer. They’ve been going out into their community to educate neighbors about the dangers of menthol cigarettes.

The students are working with the Minnesota Association of Nonsmokers and the Tobacco Free Alliance and are speaking to members of the Hmong community, both in English and Hmong. 

Earlier this summer, the students had a booth at the Hmong Freedom Celebration Sport Tournament, also known as J4, where they talked to people about the use of menthol tobacco and who it affects, while sharing information about a proposed St. Paul ordinance.

The ordinance, which will be introduced Sept. 6 before the St. Paul City Council, would restrict the sale of menthol tobacco products to tobacco shops, barring the sale at corner and convenience stores. Earlier this summer, the City of Minneapolis passed a similar ordinance.

Last year St. Paul passed a related ordinance, preventing all stores but tobacco shops from selling flavored tobacco. 

The goal is to prevent youth from having easy access to menthol tobacco products, which many young people use when they first start smoking, because of the cooling effects menthol has on the throat.

According to the Minnesota Association of Nonsmokers, 44 percent of Minnesota high school students who smoke use menthol tobacco products. Research has also found that menthol tobacco products are often targeted towards people of color: 70.5 percent of African-American youth smokers smoke menthols, compared to 51.4 percent of white youth smokers.

While this is the first year there has been a group of Hmong students working to educate poeple about the dangers of menthol cigarettes, there has been a group of African-American youth in the St. Anthony neighborhood working on the same cause for many years.


Learning about the civic process

Tou Thai Lee, who is mentoring the Johnson students, works with the Tobacco Free Alliance of Minnesota. He’s worked with various drug prevention groups for more than 16 years. 

He said the students are not only engaging with the community, but they’re also engaging in the civic process — they met with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and city council members to discuss their cause. 

Some of the students may also speak during the city council’s Sept. 20 public hearing on the ordinance.

Ward 7 St. Paul City Council member Jane Prince said the students group’s message is powerful.

“When kids come in and say, ‘We feel targeted, we don’t like it and we want you to pass these restrictions,’ it really undercuts anything the tobacco companies could tell us, because it’s kids fighting for themselves and their own health and their own ability to make good choices,” said Prince, who is one of the co-sponsors of the ordinance. 

The council’s final vote on the menthol tobacco ordinance is Sept. 27.

Lee said having young people connect with other people their own age about health concerns such as smoking is more effective than anything he could do himself.

“I don’t know what’s cool or ‘in,’” Lee said. “If I can get youth to talk to other youth, that’s better than me, a 43-year-old guy, talking to a 16-year-old kid.”

Shaun Vang, a sophomore at Johnson and a member of the student group, said part of the reason he joined was because his dad smokes menthol cigarettes.

He said it’s been “very freeing” to be involved and to help educate the community about the dangers of menthols.

“It’s very fun and very informational,” he said.

Lee said the experience is also empowering for the students. He tells them, “You’re saving lives. I’ll equip you and then you can tweak it, revise it, whatever you think is best to reach your peers with the message.”

“You can make a difference.”


Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto


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