Local school, healthcare and law enforcement personnel recently spoke about what they have seen regarding the vaping epidemic.

“Yes, these products are really in your schools,” said Pat McKone, senior director for health promotions and policy with the American Lung Association (ALA) in Duluth. “They’re just about everywhere.”

Pat McKone, senior director of health promotions and policy with the American Lung Association, led a presentation about the health hazards of vaping Jan. 22 at Century School. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)
Pat McKone, senior director of health promotions and policy with the American Lung Association, led a presentation about the health hazards of vaping Jan. 22 at Century School. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

“In the 2019-20 school year, we’ve had seven suspensions at the high school for … tobacco use,” said Shelli Walsh, coordinator of educational services at Park Rapids Area High School. “Six were for vaping, and we had one person who we called ‘old school.’ She actually smoked a cigarette in the bathroom. … At the middle school, there have been 14 so far.”

Of those 21 students, she said, 17 were boys – a bias she also sees in the Hubbard County diversion program she works with. The youngest kids in that program this year were a group of fifth graders from Laporte who were caught vaping on the playground.

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Rittgers and Walsh talk with parents and teens about the types of vaping devices and paraphernalia students have been caught with at Park Rapids Area Schools. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

School Resource Officer Joe Rittgers said students have been caught vaping on the bus and in the school bathroom this year. There have even been incidents of students vaping in class – practically under their teacher’s nose.

Students have found clever ways to vape undetected. For example, Rittgers said, they may hide the vaping device up their sleeve, “and maybe act like they’re just tucking their hand in, and taking a hit off of it and then blowing it either into their shirt, down the front, or into their other sleeve.”

Based on the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, Walsh said, “We have a higher average of vaping products in Hubbard County, in terms of the last 30-day use,” than statewide. About 21 percent of 11th graders in the county reported having used a vaping product during the past 30 days. Meantime, 71 percent of 11th graders agreed that most students vape on a monthly basis.

Walsh said her biggest concern is the amount of nicotine young people can be inhaling when they vape – because the nicotine concentration in vape fluids is not regulated.

A real epidemic

McKone shared why vaping can be described as an epidemic during a Jan. 22 presentation at the Century School.

As of Jan. 14, more than 140 probable or confirmed cases of a vaping-related illness – actually a lung injury – have been reported in Minnesota alone, leading to three deaths so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“When you’re on a vent and you have lung injury, the lungs don’t grow back. Those are permanent injuries,” said McKone.

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Rittgers and Walsh talk with parents and teens about the types of vaping devices and paraphernalia students have been caught with at Park Rapids Area Schools. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

Troy Helland, a respiratory therapist and certified tobacco treatment counselor at the Essentia Health Park Rapids Clinic, said a relative one of his co-workers developed a blood clot while vaping and will have to take blood thinners for the rest of her life.

A father of four, Helland said his kids go to the same school as a boy who had a seizure after taking a big hit on his vape in the school bathroom.

“Everybody was laughing about it,” said Helland. “The attitude toward this, from what I’ve seen, from youth, is it’s taken too lightly.”

Helland commented on the insidious nature of nicotine, acting as both a stimulant and a sedative. “You take the puff,” he said, “and suddenly my world comes into focus and I can handle life. Well, within just a matter of minutes, that nicotine has been used up in your brain and falls off, so you find yourself in that deadly cycle of needing more nicotine. … It’s not good for your blood pressure. It’s not good for your heart. It’s not good for any of your vital organs.”

Walsh agreed, saying that when she asks students why they vape, many of them admit that they are self-medicating for stress and anxiety.

While combustible tobacco products, such as cigarettes, remain the No. 1 killer of Americans, McKone said, that “will change probably in our lifetime because of the products that are on the market and coming to the market.”

Helland explained how the lungs protect themselves by encapsulating substances that are inhaled. These nodules can later turn into cancer.

Helland shares examples of what parents might find in their teen's book bag, including cleverly camouflaged vaping devices. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)
Helland shares examples of what parents might find in their teen's book bag, including cleverly camouflaged vaping devices. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

Reasons to be concerned

McKone points out many additional reasons to be concerned about the rising use of vaping devices. For example:

  • The number of young people smoking had decreased steadily for a number of years. Then, McKone said, “for the first time, in 2017 in our state … tobacco use increased because of these devices.” Between 2016 and 2019, tobacco use (vaping included) increased by 95 percent among eighth graders, 75 percent among ninth graders and 54 percent among 11th graders, according to the Minnesota Student Survey.

  • The most common way youth obtain vapes is from friends. Last year, however, the ALA sent kids into vape shops where, without using a fake ID or lying about their age, they successfully made purchases in 10 out of 40 attempts. “There’s a problem there,” said McKone.

  • Juul devices are especially addictive because they provide a nicotine hit to the brain almost as fast as cigarettes, and much faster than the average vaping device. A Juul pod contains as much nicotine as two packs of cigarettes.

  • Tasty flavors, deceptive marketing and cleverly disguised e-juice containers and vaping devices appeal to young people and make them hard for teachers and parents to detect.

  • There is a false narrative that vape is a quit-smoking aid. McKone said there is no scientific data to support this. In fact, one vaping manufacturer successfully sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to avoid being regulated as a smoking cessation product.

  • Another false narrative, McKone said, is that vape ingredients like propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin are FDA approved. They are FDA-approved, she said, “for eating, not for inhalation.”

  • Not only the active ingredient (nicotine), but even some vape flavors and other ingredients are harmful to inhale. “It is not just benign water vapor,” said McKone. “Now that people have lost their lives and literally thousands have been hospitalized, people are beginning to believe that.”

  • “One thing I’ve actually heard parents say is, ‘Well, at least they’re not smoking. At least it’s not cigarettes,’” said McKone. “I would say, that’s the wrong answer, now that we’re in an epidemic.”

A big business

McKone noted that Juul’s success is based on its founders’ discovery of “a chemical way to get a faster hit to the brain and have a lifetime customer because of addiction.”

Altria, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, bought one-third of Juul’s stock in December 2018 for $13.1 billion, saying Juul could become “the Marlboro of vaping.” That Christmas, McKone said, every Juul employee received a $1.25 million holiday bonus. “It’s a big industry,” she said.

She discussed the brain effects of nicotine on people under age 25. Vape use can lead to seizures, alter their brain development and increase their risk of addiction, she said. McKone recalled meeting a boy from North Carolina who wanted to break the habit; it took a month of treatment in a clinic in California.

Asked what can help, McKone recommended the ALA’s online resources at lung.org, the #ditchjuul campaign at www.thetruth.com, evidence-based addiction treatment – including FDA-approved cessation aids and one-to-one therapy.

McKone cautioned that the treatment may need to be ongoing “because addiction is powerful.”

She also stressed the importance of tougher laws and lawsuits to push back against the growth of vaping. For example, she noted, the State of Minnesota is currently suing Juul.

“Get the companies,” McKone said. “Get them to change.”