By Tara Brandl
The symptoms can be as common as a chest cold going around the school on a cool, fall morning in Minnesota: shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, fever, nausea, vomiting.
But these symptoms can also be the result of a growing epidemic in our schools: vaping.
What started as a few cases of an unknown lung disease has exploded in just a few short weeks. The exact ingredient in e-cigarettes causing the increase in lung disease is still under investigation, but the use of e-cigarettes is at an all-time high, and youth in the United States are paying the ultimate price, even as the detrimental health effects of the newest tobacco craze are still being determined.
According to the Centers for Disease Control as of last Friday, 450 possible cases of lung disease associated with the use of e-cigarette products have been reported nationwide to the CDC from 33 states. In addition, five deaths have been confirmed to have been linked to e-cigarette use including one in Minnesota.
E-cigarettes or electronic cigarettes were introduced to the market about 10 years ago. They were marketed as an alternative to traditional smoking and a way to step down from traditional smoking according to Arielle Selya, Assistant Scientist at Sanford Research. Vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling the aerosol, often referred to as vapor, which is produced by an e-cigarette or similar device. The term is used because e-cigarettes do not produce tobacco smoke, but rather an aerosol, often mistaken for water vapor, that actually consists of fine particles. An e-cig or vaping device usually consists of a mouthpiece, a battery, a cartridge for containing the e-liquid or e-juice, and a heating component for the device that is powered by a battery.
When the device is used, the battery heats up the heating component, which turns the contents of the e-liquid — which include nicotine and flavoring — into an aerosol that is inhaled into the lungs and then exhaled.
Vaping products come in many shapes and sizes. While some vape devices are made to look like regular cigarettes, many could easily be mistaken for everyday items, such as flash drives and pens. While the original concept behind e-cigarettes was to decrease the use of tobacco products, the recent rise in youth vaping has caused an increase in teen tobacco use for the first time in 17 years, according to Clearway MN. In addition, teen vaping rates have increased by nearly 50% since 2014. One of the biggest concerns with the rise in teen tobacco use is the unknowns of prolonged use.
“It is true that e-cigarettes are perceived as being healthier and not even that concerning at all among youth,” Selya stated. “The biggest concern is many youth are not aware that they contain nicotine, which is addictive. In addition, we don’t really know about the long-term health effects because we don’t really have people that have been using e-cigarettes for a lifetime in order to see what kind of chronic disease might result.”
Currently, there are over 15,500 different tobacco flavors, many of which are flavored after popular candy and snack items such as Sour Patch Kids, Pop Rocks and Nilla wafers. The variety of flavorings have prompted groups like Clearway to call for legislation similar to traditional cigarettes in limiting the flavoring options.
“E-cigs are perceived as healthier and in many cases they are more available because they don’t have the same kind of restrictions on sales and marketing that conventional cigarettes do,” Selya explained. “Conventional cigarettes are not allowed to have any flavor besides menthol, but e-cigarettes can have all sorts of flavors.”
The marketing viewed by many to be targeted to youth and the different marketing rules compared to conventional cigarettes hits home with administrators at Tracy Public Schools.
“Some students understand what they are getting and some don’t,” said Tracy Area High School Principal Kathy Vondracek. “Part of the teenage psyche is risk taking. Trying things that they know they shouldn’t, that’s never going to change with time. But I just worry about these kids that do it a lot … about their health. I don’t think its going to take long. Some of the vapes/oils/cartridges have THC in them. To me that’s so frustrating. It’s hard enough for kids to do the right thing, and for big companies to find ways to market to youth and find ways to market anything they want to youth, it upsets me.”
“I think the most frustrating part of it is, how do (tobacco companies) sleep at night?” said TAHS counselor Sonja Gasca. “How do they sleep at night knowing they are targeting these young kids who at that age, there is some rebellion? So they are going to believe all that other stuff. Coming up with these flavors? It’s frustrating because you try so hard to get these kids to stay healthy and to stay safe and you know them personally. You know them and care about them. And these people that are doing this don’t know these kids that they are targeting and how easily influenced they are.”
That might be changing.
On Sept. 9, the Food and Drug Administration issued a stern warning letter to Juul Labs (the largest e-cigarette company) flagging claims by Juul including that its products are “much safer than cigarettes.” The FDA claims that Juul labs illegally pitched its electronic cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoking, including a presentation at some schools in larger cities. Juul currently has three-quarters of the vaping market. In marketing materials, Juul has referred to its products as “99% safer than cigarettes,” “much safer” than cigarettes, “totally safe” and “a safer alternative than smoking cigarettes,” according to the FDA letter.
However, the long term safety of e-cigarettes has not been proven.
“Nicotine itself has been the biggest health concern to youth,” Selya said. “Nicotine is responsible for cardiovascular diseases, so if I were to speculate I would say that the major long-term health outcome that we’ll find as a result of e-cigarettes is related to cardiovascular diseases.”
In addition to the variety of flavors, the stigma of traditional smoking doesn’t carry over to e-cigarettes or vaping in the eyes of current teenagers. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, one in four middle school and high school students in Minnesota have tried e-cigarettes. In addition, half of Minnesota high school seniors reported having tried e-cigarettes at least once in 2017. E-cigarettes, or vaping as it is commonly referred to by the students, has become more prevalent in the Tracy area in the last two years, but students interviewed by the Tracy Area Headlight Herald did not view vaping with the same concerns as adults in the community.
“It’s an issue, but a lot of people are either oblivious to it or they think too much of it,” one student said. “They think it is more of a problem than it actually is. Mainly, it’s parents and school administration overreacting because it is something new and they don’t understand it.”
Students at Tracy Area High School estimated that one in seven students vape or have tried vaping, less than the CDC statewide estimate. However, not everyone agrees with those numbers.
“I think it is much higher in the older grades,” stated Lyon County Sheriff Deputy Dustin DeMuth. “In grades 11-12, it is probably about 30% or one in three that have tried it. With social media platforms, it’s a lot easier for them to get access to it and connect with other individuals that are doing it.”
With the numbers rising so quickly in the last couple years, administrators and parents are trying to pinpoint why it has grown in popularity so quickly. Students stated that the availability of vaping devices and products as well as how easy it is to hide are reasons that students are vaping. Some vaping devices are as small as a flash drive and charge by plugging into a student’s laptop.
“It’s difficult to detect, because sometimes it smells just like some perfumes or colognes,” Vondracek said. “And that’s an out for kids: ‘I just sprayed.’ The device — it is very purposeful. That’s part of the education. It’s all part of it. You have to be aware, you have to know what to look for, what it might look like. It’s very frustrating.”
In addition to the frustration of trying to learn the many vaping devices available to youth, educating students to the actual harm of the vaping is another challenge. Students who talked to the paper did not have the same safety views that adults do.
“They make them (e-cigarettes) sound worse than they actually are just to get people to lay off of it,” one student said. “It’s not good for you but it’s not as bad as they make it sound.”
When asked about the effects of nicotine on the students, their views again were much different than the adults.
‘It makes you crave it,” a student said. “I don’t think it does anything to you. It depends on your personality type. If you come from an addictive family, you’ll probably get a buzz off of it. But I don’t think it harms you. It can’t be good for your lungs to inhale a foreign thing, but it can’t be that bad for you.”
Vondracek disagrees and feels that educating the students is the most important step the school needs to take in preventing vaping in students.
“First of all, and most of all, it’s harmful to you,” Vondracek said. “It’s going to destroy your health eventually. The biggest takeaway I want kids to know is that vapes or e-cigarettes come in all sizes and shapes and cartridges. Would you eat something someone just told you to eat — it doesn’t look very good but just eat it. You wouldn’t do it, right? So why are you ingesting that into your lungs — a vital organ that you need to survive, why would you do that to your lungs?”
The harmful effects of vaping are taught in Tracy Public Schools as young as the sixth grade in the Truth About Drugs program. Reaching them when they are still in elementary school is another important aspect of the education.
“It is very important to get this information to students prior to getting to the high school level because when they hit that seventh grade, it’s a new building, it’s new teachers and now they are low on the totem pole again and there is going to be a lot of temptation because everything changes,” said DeMuth, who taught in the Truth About Drugs program while he was a police officer in Tracy. “And I think you have to educate them before they get to that point. I always say, what is predictable is preventable. A lot of them see these little videos here and there and they think it’s cool and they honestly have no idea that there are harmful chemicals, they thought it was just fog, like water. There is so much more nicotine in them than you would see in a cigarette. And then all the other chemicals and metals.”
To his point, DeMuth shared the importance of understanding what is in the cartridges and how it affected a traffic stop involving teenagers this summer.
“I made a traffic stop on a vehicle with a bunch of teenagers in it,’ he said. “I found some of the THC vapor cartridges. What the teenagers did not realize is it is actually a felony in Minnesota. It is classified as THC oil, which makes it a felony. It’s very hard to detect. It’s odorless, but extremely concentrated and extremely dangerous.”
Education is a key factor in keeping youth from vaping, but peer pressure is one of the strongest factors in trying vaping.
“The students want acceptance, and I do think that is a huge part of vaping,” Gasca said. “‘Oh, it’s cool, you should try it, just try it.’ The peer pressure is huge. Kids want to fit in. They want people to like them. Someone hands it to them and it’s hard to say no.”
“I think they understand the severity of it, especially once you explain it, but there is still that peer pressure. That’s one of the hardest things to overcome,” DeMuth said, “especially for high schoolers, for them to not do it when all their friends are. You can educate and I think that definitely helps, You can write tickets, but that’s not going to help because those go away. But if you can really educate them and try to make that impact on them, I think they will understand it at least; but for them to overcome that peer pressure, that’s going to be tough.”
As the Tracy Public School administration enters the new school year, they are working to educate students on the increased dangers of vaping. The school handbook has a three–day suspension policy for any tobacco product on school grounds. It applies to use and possession of the product. But Vondracek would like to add more to the education component.
“I am looking for some strong education components that kids can complete about awareness about what they are doing,” Vondracek said. “For kids to complete when they have something like this happen. To me, it’s not about the punishment. I want kids to know it’s hurting them. We don’t want them to do it. I want them to be healthy for a long, long time. Everything they can control in regards to their health they need to do. There is going to be things they can’t. Now is the time to take care of your young bodies, until you’re 25, your brains are still developing. So you have got to be careful.”
In addition, Vondracek is looking into sensors for the restrooms at the high school. These sensors would detect vaping but do not have any video or voice recording capabilities. They would send an alert to administration if vaping is detected in that location. This is part of the education of youth and preventing it from happening on school grounds.
But at the end of the day, she said, vaping is just like any other addiction, and that makes the battle against it even tougher.
“It activates the same part of your brain when you eat sugar or do cocaine, or whatever you do,” Vondracek said. “It’s the same part of the brain. So that pleasure activity is going to want more and more and more. And then all of a sudden you’re hooked. And what are you going to do to get off that? I would just as soon kids don’t start. You don’t want to aid bad habits of any type. And if that’s what we believe we have to back that up. I can’t change people’s attitudes, I just want to make sure kids don’t think that this is a safe place to do it because no one is going to catch them. It’s not because I want them to get in trouble. It’s because I truly don’t want them to do it. It’s not healthy.”