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We need to talk about vaping: ‘Tsunami’ is hitting area high schools

Vapes have been smaller in sizes in recent years. Some are as small as a USB jump drive and easy to hide.

For the 2018-2019 school year, Goodhue County schools are dealing with an unhealthy, addictive trend.

Over the last couple years the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices in schools has increased dramatically. This year alone, the Red Wing School District has dealt with 24 juvenile tobacco violations. Other districts report fewer violations, but they are preparing for more issues in the future.

Red Wing High School Principal Todd Herber thinks this situation is going to get worse before it gets better.

"I think we are on the verge of a tsunami," Herber said. "I think this is going to be the defining addiction for this generation."

In the fall, Herber and his fellow Big 9 conference principals met to discuss the issue. Herber said all school districts are trying to find a way to address it and find the best way to keep their students safe.

Herber said one Big 9 principal shared staff confiscated 50 vapes in one day from the school. Another Big 9 principal mistook his own child's vape pen for a USB drive, not realizing the child had been vaping for two months and was having a difficult time kicking the addiction.

"That's why I say I think it's a tsunami because I don't think parents realize, and I also think, too, parents will say, 'Not my child,'" Herber said. "What I think we need to be cognizant of is that children who have financial means, if they have money in their pockets, they can get access to these devices."

What is a vape?

A vape is an electronic device that takes "e-liquid" or "vape juice" and produces an aerosol by heating that fluid when the user inhales.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the user inhales, like one would do with a cigarette, into the lungs. The liquid can deliver nicotine, a variety of flavors, drugs and other chemicals.

Vapes can vary in appearance. In the early days, principals said vapes were easy to spot. They were often bulky and hard to conceal. Now, with companies like JUUL, vapes have gotten to the size of a USB flash drive.

JUUL is responsible for more than 70 percent of the e-cigarette market, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The liquid can come in a variety of flavors such as classic tobacco and menthol, according to the JUUL website. Other flavors are mango and mint. Students tend to gravitate toward the fruitier or even odorless flavors compared to the tobacco flavors.

The fluid in one JUULpod is projected to last about 200 puffs, according to their website. The nicotine in one JUULpod can be as much as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes.

When did this start?

Dave Anderson started noticing the trend begin when he was an assistant principal at Winona Senior High School five years ago.

Back then, the vapes were large, almost like a bulky pen in some instances. Now as the MS/HS principal at Zumbrota-Mazeppa, Anderson is seeing it in the school, but it's "not an epidemic" at this time.

Many Goodhue County principals have the same timeline as Anderson; they're finding it's popping up but haven't been overwhelmed at this time.

Cannon Falls MS/HS Principal Tim Hodges is dealing with instances of vaping on school grounds every couple of weeks. Trying to police vaping has become increasingly difficult, with vapes becoming smaller, some liquids becoming odorless, and clothing being released that helps people conceal their vaping device without others noticing.

For the most part, Hodges said they have to rely on the other students to come forward to say which of their classmates are vaping on school property.

Parking lots, bathrooms and places where cameras might not necessarily reach are the favorite places for students, according to Hodges and Herber.

With the size of vapes continuously getting smaller, students are able to get away with vaping in school much easier, according to Herber.

Faculty can't force a student to turn over the device if staff don't have proof it was used on school grounds, with some students possibly harboring the device in their under garments.

"And not that we're none-the-wiser, but we certainly can't compel a student to relinquish these devices unless we see them," Herber said.

In September, the Minnesota Department of Health warned that high school tobacco use spiked to 26 percent, the first increase in 17 years.

The department also warned that exposure to nicotine at a young age can affect brain development, adding that young people are more likely to become addicted faster than adults are.

Who are vapes for?

According to numerous e-cigarette websites, vapes are designed to help cigarette smokers stop smoking.

However, according to the Federal Drug Administration, e-cigarettes are not approved as a "quit smoking aid." Smokefree, an organization created by the National Cancer Institute and a part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, says on its website there has been "limited evidence that e-cigarettes are effective for helping smokers quit."

Goodhue High School Principal Michele Rehder said she's seen more instances of students using vaping devices this academic year, but nothing to the extent of other area schools. Rehder said her greatest concern is the way vaping devices are being marketed to young ages.

"I don't see this trend ending quickly," Rehder said "It's concerning to me that students and young people are being targeted."

The FDA also required e-cigarette companies to prove they can keep their devices out of the hands of underage users in September, giving them 60 days. The FDA threatened to pull vaping products from the market if companies were unable to show their evidence.

E-cigarette companies and the FDA are still working together to find a way to keep products out of the hands of minors, but as Anderson points out, it's not always that simple.

"The hard part is kids, it's like anything, I don't care if it's alcohol, drugs, if they have access to it they'll use it," Anderson said.

What about marijuana legalization?

Marijuana wax is capable of being used in vaping devices. While Z-M, Cannon Falls, Goodhue and Lake City have not dealt with this in their respective schools, Herber said Red Wing has.

If caught with marijuana wax, students can face a felony. If a student is caught vaping in schools, all of the districts said law enforcement will get involved. This usually results in a citation. For punishment from school, if the student is a first-time offender, the student will usually be given some form of suspension. Schools are also tobacco-free campuses, so if 18-year-olds are caught using, they are still subject to punishment from the district.

Z-M's Anderson said early on the Minnesota State High School League was swift to let coaches and athletes know that students who use tobacco can be subject for suspensions as well.

When Anderson said when asked about the possibility of legalizing marijuana in the state said "It'll make our jobs in school harder."

Herber is blunt about the legalization of recreational marijuana in Minnesota: No thank you.

"I hope we never see legalized, recreational marijuana in this state, because if we do, it is going to have a negative impact on the children in our schools," Herber said.

Herber said students already have enough to deal with in the form of social media, busy schedules, and other societal pressures. Adding on marijuana would make things worse.

At this time, there is no vote to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, but newly elected Gov. Tim Walz has spoken on many occasions of his support and could become more of a discussion during his tenure.

What are schools doing to help?

Lincoln High School Principal Greg Berge said the Lake City School District isn't dealing with issues of vaping every week, but that it's "definitely more prevalent."

He and other Goodhue County principals have being doing everything they can to inform students and their parents of the dangers of vaping. Berge said they've used health and advisory classes in the building to teach students, with other districts doing the same.

Rehder said Goodhue has started the Catch My Breath program, a national curriculum that teaches people of the dangers of these products.

Herber said one Big 9 school is testing a vape detector that when student is vaping in a bathroom, for example, would pick up the vapors in the air and alert the administration. Herber said the school is a pilot program and will report back on the results. Herber said the detector is expensive.

All the school districts will be working hard over the coming months to make sure people are as informed as they possibly can be on the nature of these products. Principals said they hope that students and parents take the time to discuss the dangers of these products together.

"I strongly caution parents to ask questions, if you don't think your child's using it, go into their rooms, talk to them about it," Herber said. "Make sure you set forth your family's expectations about chemical use."

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2018 covering school board, public safety, and writing features. Lambert previously wrote for the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication: Journalism. 

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