Hundreds of cases of lung disease and at least 13 deaths nationwide are putting the focus on vaping as a possible cause of these deaths.
Schools and public health officials are trying to tackle the issue. Pine County Public Health Educator Hayley Smith said she is working with schools in the county to battle the rise of vaping.
“Over the course of this last year something that has really shined for me is that all my teachers, superintendents, high school principals are really facing a challenge, and that is e-cigarette usage amongst their students,” Smith said.
Vaping (also known as e-cigarettes, juuling and more) involves inhaling a liquid aerosol heated through a coil system in a small, usually handheld electronic device. The liquid aerosol is often given fruit and candy flavors to make it more marketable. Most forms of vape are infused with nicotine, and many contain THC - the intoxicating chemical in marijuana. Vaping devices are not FDA regulated. Anything can be inside those liquids. The Minnesota Department of Health reports that e-cigarette aerosol contains harmful chemicals, such as ultrafine particles, oil, heavy metals like nickel, tin and lead, and other cancer-causing chemicals.
Children’s Minnesota has reported finding four cases of severe lung injury in the metro area potentially related to vaping. These cases are similar to lung disease cases recently reported in Wisconsin and Illinois.
An image Smith uses to highlight the challenges of stopping vaping among young people is a picture of a backpack containing multiple vaping devices side-by-side with school supplies.
“You can see it is very difficult as a parent, as a community member, as staff at school to be able to recognize and decipher what is a candy, what’s a highlighter and what’s a new vape pen that’s out on the market,” Smith said. “They look like everyday items. It’s very easy for them to hide in something like a backpack.”
Vaping companies keep coming up with ways to disguise their product. One company has developed a vaping hoodie, where the user vapes through the strings around the hood of the sweatshirt. If they then exhale into the sleeve of the hoodie the act of vaping becomes practically invisible to the eye – and the nose.
“You can have a remnant of those fruity flavors, but ... that can be masked very, very easily,” Smith said. “It is not nearly as obvious as if you were to use traditional cigarettes.”
Smith said students understand the dangers of smoking cigarettes, and in surveys many call it “disgusting.”
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the use of tobacco for people between the ages of 18 and 24 dropped by almost half between 2014 and 2018. However, the use of vaping devices almost doubled in that same amount of time.
Vaping is on the rise with students because they don’t see vaping as something that can affect one’s health. Vaping devices have a false reputation among students that they are safe.
“In a survey, every survey [they say], ‘It is cool, it is fun. My friends do it. I like the flavors,’” Smith said.
The U.S. Surgeon General calls teen e-cigarette use an epidemic. Locally, the 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found that nearly 20% of high-school students use e-cigarettes and 40% have tried them. Youth e-cigarette use has surpassed conventional cigarettes as the most commonly used tobacco product category among youth. In addition, 34.7% of high school students and 15.8% of middle school students who currently use e-cigarettes have used an e-cigarette for recreational marijuana, THC or hash oil, or THC wax at least once in their lifetime.
“It’s younger and younger kids using,” Smith said. “And perceived risk for a middle schooler? No way. They don’t think anything is going to happen to them. ‘This is cool, this is fun, it tastes good.’”
Smith noted that many communities have joined the “Tobacco 21” initiative, and forbidden selling vaping devices or supplies (as well as cigarettes and tobacco) to anyone under the age of 21. Pine and Kanabec counties are not yet among them.
However, the evidence of dangers posed by vaping – and its dramatic rise in use by students – continues to mount.
“There are still many unanswered questions, but the health harms emerging from the current epidemic of youth vaping in Minnesota continue to increase,” said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist and MDH medical director. “We are encouraging providers and parents to be on the look-out for vaping as a cause for unexplained breathing problems and lung injury and disease.”
“There are bigger steps state-wide that we should be taking,” Smith said. “But I think it’s important as parents, teachers – whatever your roles are – is advocating and educating those around you.”