Dangerous habit

Audrey Staggemeyer, right, shows Dianne Gerard, left, Gary Buxengard and Cindy Thorson how easy it is for kids to charge a vaping device, which can often look like a USB flash drive, commonly used in schools.

By Jordan Gerard

Spring Grove Herald

Vaping has been declared a new epidemic among youth and young adults and yes, it’s hit Spring Grove and Houston County.

Houston County Public Health Educator Audrey Staggemeyer said, “Vaping continues to be a growing concern all over Minnesota.”

The presentation on vaping was held on Thursday, Nov. 14, at the Spring Grove Cinema and was done in partnership with Spring Grove Community Education, Wilmington Lutheran Church and Thrivent Financial.

“Is it safe? No, not for teens and young adults because their brains are still developing,” Staggemeyer told the audience. “It increases the risk for dual tobacco use, which is use of other drugs and alcohol and cigarettes.”

According to a 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, e-cigarette or vaping (e-cigs), showed a steep increase in use among students. What’s more is the usage of e-cigs almost doubled in eighth grade students from 2016 to 2019.

Additionally, one in four 11th grade students now use e-cigs, the data showed. The survey also showed “students in all grades surveyed use e-cigs and vapes at five times the rate of conventional cigarettes.”

What is it?

Vaping is a form of inhaling nicotine through a battery-powered device, often called a vape. The device heats the liquid (sometimes referred to as e-liquid or e-juice) into an aerosol the user inhales.

Vaping is often misconstrued with “being safe” because it’s marketed as inhaling water vapor, however that’s not true, Staggemeyer said. 

The device produces an aerosol like a hairspray can, and depending on what chemicals are in the liquid, which can harm lung function.

“About 99.6% of the e-juice contains nicotine. A lot of the other ingredients are irritants,” she said. “Diacetyl, the flavoring used in microwave popcorn can be in it. Our stomach acid can break down that flavor, but inhaling it into our lungs has a negative effect.”

The flavorings in the liquids are not safe when inhaled into the lungs.

Other chemicals include formaldehyde, a lung and eye irritant and a known carcinogen; propylene gylcol, an upper respiratory tract and eye irritant that can also cause an allergic reaction leading to skin inflammation and is also the principal ingredient in vapor; and benzaldehyde, which is used in perfumes to provide scent. 

Since nicotine is highly addictive, youth often get hooked after a few times of trying to vape, Staggemeyer said. 

The brain can learn addiction and the earlier the exposure to smoking or vaping, the greater the risk. Youths vaping are more likely to use other substances and vaping can often lead to other tobacco, alcohol and drug usage. 

The liquid often comes in a pod, which can be bought in local convenience stores in a pack of four, Staggemeyer said. One pod is equal to one pack of conventional cigarettes and contains 200 puffs. 

Popular brands among youth include JUUL, Vus, Smoke, NJoy, Soarin’ Air and others found in stores. JUUL was the first brand to bring it on the market and become widely known.

That company has recently pulled its flavors from shelves and currently sells mint flavor and traditional tobacco flavor. However, similar companies have not followed suit and NJoy brand of blueberry remains a popular flavor among Houston County youth, Staggemeyer said.

Why are youth doing it?

The flavors of the liquids have attracted youth to try vaping and the tobacco industry has also targeted youth by advertising the flavors.

“In recent years, there’s been thousands and thousands of flavors. There’s about 15,000 flavors today,” Staggemeyer said. “Youth are going for the flavors.”

Additionally, youth are also vaping because it’s affordable. Once the vaping device is bought (averaging about $20), the pods can be purchased, depending on the size of the pack, for about $10 to $15.

How are youth under 18 getting the vapes and pods? They have someone who is old enough buy it for them or pay them for buying it, Staggemeyer said.

Social media is another way to get ahold of a vaping device, as students can use the hashtag (#) and key words to find older youth willing to buy and sell it. 

Online is also a common way to purchase the e-cig. Out of 10 vape shop websites Staggemeyer visited, two did not ask her age to ensure she was over 18. However, that doesn’t guarantee someone under 18 isn’t going to be able to shop, she added.

A few websites ask buyers to upload a photo of their identification, but if they’re not old enough youth oftentimes use their parents’ driver’s license to get around the age restriction, or ask for their parent’s social security number, she added. 

“The online vape shops often have names that don’t flag parent’s credit cards or look suspicious,” Staggemeyer said. “They can ship it to their friend’s house and the packages are often intercepted by the youth before parents come home.”

Gift cards, like Visa gift cards or unspecified gift cards are often used to purchase tobacco products online.

Unlike traditional cigarettes that are combustible and burn constantly, vapes are small devices and can be hidden easily. They could look like iPhones, pens, lipsticks, smart watches, makeup compact, compact mirrors, inhalers, highlighters, USB drives and other items that would normally be found in a youth’s bedroom, backpack or locker.

The cloud of smoke is also replaced by “vapor” that disappears quickly or can be very small and undetectable, which means youth have risked vaping in class, on field trips or on school grounds.

“A bus driver turned in a small bag with a phone charger and it sat in the office for weeks with no one claiming it,” Staggemeyer said. “It was a charger for a vaping device.”

Clothing companies have also caught onto the trend and one company called “VaprWear” has created a sweatshirt where a user can inhale from the vape through one string of a hoodie and exhale through the other.

As for the smell, Staggemeyer said it’s often subtle and could smell like someone’s body spray, lotion or ChapStick. 

“We tell teachers and staff that if they have students who chew on hoodie drawstrings in their mouth or have their hands by their face a lot, they could be vaping,” she added.

Signs of vaping include coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, fatigue, fever and respiratory symptoms that don’t go away.

Additionally, changes in dental health, nosebleeds (vaping dries out nasal passages), increased thirst and heightened caffeine sensitivity are also signs, Staggemeyer said. 

Vaping is dangerous because it can lead to nicotine dependency (and withdrawal symptoms when users try to quit), diabetes, respiratory problems, chronic bronchitis, teeth and gum disease, eye damage and death.

“We do not know the short and long term effect of vaping, but we do know vaping will have a negative effect on your health,” she added.

In addition to the harm vaping causes to the lungs, there’s also a risk of the batteries exploding on the devices, which can cause serious injury, burns or even death.

Speaking of health risks, the Center for Disease and Control (CDC) has been updating the number of lung injury cases from vaping. Currently, the number stands at 2,172, whereas last week it was at 2,051.

Of those cases, 42 have resulted in death from a lung injury. Most ages range from 13 to 75 years of age and 54% of those cases are under the age of 24. The CDC is calling it a “lung injury outbreak.”

Minnesota ranks among states with a higher number of cases from 100 to 149.

The latest development is the CDC has suspected vitamin E acetate as a component to lung injuries. The chemical is one used in food and skin lotions, but is harmful when inhaled.

With the rise of medical marijuana and more states on the horizon of legalizing recreational marijuana, many of the pods can also contain marijuana and the THC chemical. Staggemeyer said it’s hard to track where the illicit pods come from.

Today’s THC levels are not the levels of yesterday, which were at 10% whereas today’s levels are at 80%.

The other problem with marijuana being in vape pods is it’s hard to know what else is in the concentrated marijuana, she added.

What can we do?

“Have that conversation with youth, provide education and awareness,” she said. 

This presentation and similar ones have been given to students, communities and school staff to make them aware of the dangers.

School officials have also discovered suspension and expulsion are often not effective because it gives the student another chance to vape if they’re at home or does not have an impact on them.

Staggemeyer said youth can be held accountable but education is a bigger piece.

In Houston County, if a youth under 18 is caught vaping in school and turned over to police, they usually participate in a cessation program and do community service. They may also have to go in front of a judge.

Staggemeyer said there’s also a need for a program to help kids quit smoking or vaping. Resources normally available to adults such as nicotine patches are not available to ages 18 and under.

One effort gaining ground in Minnesota and nationally, is Tobacco 21, or T21. This effort encourages cities and counties to raise the smoking age to 21, which research shows that an age gap would help keep tobacco out of school.

Already, 53 cities and counties in Minnesota have made T21 policy. Fillmore County is working on the effort, while Houston County has not officially approved it, Staggemeyer said.

The effort did clear the state House and Senate but did not make it into law. Recently, Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) was seeking input from citizens in his district (28) about supporting or not supporting the T21 effort.

As for companies selling the devices, Staggemeyer said Wal-Mart has stopped selling e-cigarettes while Kwik Trip might change their corporate policy that people need to be 21 and older to buy vaping devices. 

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