County, school, and city step up to address dangers of vaping

TCR/KRISTIN BURDEY Fillmore County Public Health Educator Brenda Pohlman explains the parts of a “vape pen.”
By : 
Kristin Burdey
Tri-County Record

America’s small towns are rarely safe from epidemics that sweep the country, and the latest example is vaping.

  Originally designed to combat smoking, devices that deliver nicotine without burning tobacco are exploding in popularity among minors, and many health experts are concerned the devices are now becoming a stepping-stone to long-term tobacco use. Even more worrisome is the fact that these devices can also be used for inhaling any illicit drug available in liquid form.

    Interviews with area students indicate those concerns may be justified. “I started vaping when I was 16,” confided an anonymous Rushford-Peterson High School student. “A friend offered it to me one day, and then said he’d buy me one of my own. I didn’t even realize that it had nicotine until later. There are a lot of kids at our school that vape, even kids as young as sixth grade. I don’t know where they get it, but they do.”

Even at the junior high level, students encounter vaping on a regular basis. “To kids, it’s really cool,” confides an anonymous student from the middle school. “People usually start vaping in middle school, and they get it from either older students or older siblings. It’s not necessarily used a lot during the school day, but it definitely gets passed around during school hours.”

The City of Rushford recently began the process of updating its decades-old tobacco use policy, in a collaborative effort with R-P Schools and Fillmore County, to address the problem of vaping.  All three entities made it clear that they were on board to curb youth usage of the electronic devices, which have been increasing in popularity in recent years.

The U.S. Surgeon General reported in 2015 that use of e-cigarettes by high school students had increased 900 percent, mostly by students who had never so much as tried a conventional cigarette. More recent data showed that in 2017 19.2 percent of high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the month prior, more than double the number who had smoked a cigarette.

R-P middle/high School Principal Jake Timm is hoping to combat the problem on several different fronts, including education, policy change, and enforcement. “It’s a big problem, and it’s getting bigger every day,” Timm acknowledges, stating that R-P is on par with a national trend of increased vape usage by young people, having himself apprehended 10 students so far this academic year. “Schools all over are facing this problem, so R-P staff is asking the question, ‘What can we do to help prevent it here?’”

If the terminology of vaping is new to you, you aren’t alone. Rising to popularity in the early 2000’s, vapes belong to a category of devices known as Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), which is a general term for a group of products that includes e-cigarettes and vapes. A vaping device consists of a several parts: a heating source that warms the liquid into a vapor, a flavor cartridge, a battery source with a charging port, and a mouthpiece to draw the vapor from.

Most devices are small and unobtrusive, resembling other products in order to avoid detection. Some are just the opposite – unapologetically attention-getting. The liquid, or ‘vape juice’, used in each device comes in a multitude of flavors, most of which are designed to appeal to younger users.

E-cigarettes have often been marketed as a tool to help smokers quit. By transitioning to a smokeless electronic product, users could theoretically phase out conventional cigarettes with all their well-documented health risks.

However, not only has the FDA not licensed the product for this purpose, but research shows that people often become dual-users, continuing to smoke cigarettes while using the vape in settings where smoking is not allowed.

In addition, there have been no long-term studies to document the effect of e-cigarettes on users over time. While it is generally accepted that electronic cigarettes are not as toxic as a cigarette, vape juice still contains a number of noxious chemicals in addition to the highly addictive nicotine. Due to the relative newness of the product, the precise effects on an individual’s health may not be known for some time.

Fillmore County Public Health Educator Brenda Pohlman has been travelling throughout the county sharing the dangers of vaping with schools. Pohlman, who serves as a critical piece of the education branch of the campaign, was recently invited to give a presentation to the entire staff of R-P School, and a separate one to each individual grade from 6th grade up.

“One of the most effective ways to address the problem is by what we call ‘Stopping the Start’,” says Pohlman, who emphasized that over 90 percent of smokers start before the age of 18. She also stressed that the youth marketing for vapes is very effective, utilizing everything from candy-inspired flavors to clothing designed specifically for concealment. “An entire subculture is being created around vaping, and so much of it is accessible online,” Pohlman said.

Both students interviewed indicated that the exotic flavors were a large part of the appeal in their eyes. Fun and fruity flavors like cotton candy and watermelon are also less detectable by adults than tobacco smoke, and are thus easier to hide. Pohlman cautions parents that this is one of the key factors to watch for. “If your child comes out of the bathroom and it smells fruity, you know something isn’t right,” she said.

Presently, few restrictions exist to purchasing paraphernalia via the internet. Most sites simply ask users if they are of age, and a click of a button allows access to shopping, where a valid credit card is often the only requirement for purchase.

Additionally, YouTube videos can teach students all they need to know about the various corners of the e-cigarette subculture. “There are tricks you can learn on YouTube,” affirms the high school student. “The combination of people at school doing it plus the accessibility of online tutorials has really made it a big thing.”

Alarming trends also indicate that vaping may be a new ‘gateway drug’, leading teens toward other chemicals. A particularly concerning aspect of the design of most vapes is the ability to utilize anything in the device that is available in a liquid format.

“There are currently three proposed bills in the Minnesota Legislature looking at tobacco usage,” Pohlman explains, citing policy as an effective means of implementing change. Bills under consideration would potentially change age restrictions for tobacco use, give funding to smoking cessation programs, and look to include e-cigarettes in the definition of smoking.

Naturally, any enacted policies come with a need for enforcement. “Right now, all juvenile offenses go to the county,” Pohlman said. “For a first offense, a student would likely be sentenced to community service and tobacco education. For subsequent offenses, penalties would increase.”

When Timm learned that other municipalities were incorporating e-cigarettes into their city ordinances, he decided to reach out to the City of Rushford and seek their input towards a collaboration. “I updated the school handbook policy three years ago,” Timm recalls, “And the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) is in the process of reviewing their guidelines. As it stands, a student caught at school would receive two days of in-school suspension and would also be in violation of the MSHSL’s chemical policy.”

This would lead to student exclusion from two weeks of competition, a significant deterrent for anyone involved in extra-curricular activities.

Possible ordinances being considered by the city would look at restricting the age of both the seller and the purchaser of electronic devices, restricting the flavors available for sale, and increasing the fines for violations. “It puts the school on the same page as the city, and it would give the police more teeth in enforcement,” said Timm.  

Moving forward, community leaders are optimistic that working together will be the key to controlling a potentially dangerous situation. “In a small town like this, we all know everybody,” Timm emphasizes. “We see each other’s kids on a daily basis – our lives are intertwined. It is our job as a community to work together and to be transparent. We won’t be able to stop it altogether, but if we can get even a few kids to stop and think, ‘Is it really worth it’? then we will have done our job.”