With the innovations in technology many of us have become addicted to electronic devices: computers, smart phones or other mobile devices.

Now add another one to the list: e-cigarettes or vaping devices.

Introduced in 2007, e-cigs are a rapidly growing market and vaping is becoming a growing concern locally – especially in the past two years and especially among young people.

“Tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, opioids – whatever comes up, they eventually hit here on the west side of the Twin Cities,” said Ben Karnes, Waconia schools’ security monitor and member of the HERO Coalition, a local partnership of parents, educators and community leaders whose mission is to prevent use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs among youth.

The United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) now categorizes vaping as an epidemic among U.S. high schoolers. “Regrettably, the use has spilled into WHS during the school day and at after-school events, to the point of it becoming a chronic behavioral issue,” Waconia High School principal Mark Frederickson wrote in a letter to parents early this school year.

What is vaping?

Jeremy Vann, of Carver County Public Health provided an overview and hands-on display of vaping devices last Tuesday at a meeting of the HERO Coalition.

A “vape” is a simple device, he said. Just a battery, a coil, an atomizer and a liquid, or “juice” to activate.

Originally promoted as a smoking cessation option and less harmful than cigarette smoking, it’s a burgeoning and until now largely unregulated industry with a growing array of tobacco-related products – many with fruity or candy flavors targeted toward a younger generation.

Now there’s growing alarm about the surging popularity and potential health effects, particularly because it follows a several-year drop in teen smoking.

Youth tobacco use increased in 2017 for the first time in 17 years, according to a recent Minnesota youth tobacco survey, and youth e-cigarette use is at its highest level ever recorded. Almost 20 percent of students responding to the survey report using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, while youth conventional cigarette smoking was at just under 10 percent. The survey also indicates that more than 57 percent of students who used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days also used conventional tobacco products. Nationally, the number of young people who vape has risen from 7 million in 2011 to 35 million in 2016.

While most students still aren’t using tobacco-related products, notes Maureen Farrell, youth development specialist, she does point out that School District 110 use exceeds state levels.

Meanwhile, there are more than a dozen locations with tobacco licenses in the city authorized to sell vaping products and Waconia has become somewhat of a regional hub for vaping, with residents of other western Carver County communities coming here to purchase vaping products, one store owner reports.

While vape shop operators say they won’t sell products to persons under age 18, they admit they can’t stop an 18-year-old buyer from sharing devices or vape pods with younger users.

“That’s not our problem,” said one.

As a deterrent, some surrounding communities – Chaska and Excelsior, for example – have raised the legal age for tobacco purchases to 21. Whether other communities follow suit, or whether controls are put in place at the county or state level is still in question.

There are also questions about vaping as it relates to the Clean Indoor Air Act and about secondhand vapor being safe.

“The U.S. Surgeon General in a 2014 report concluded that e-cigarette aerosol is not harmless and can contain potentially harmful chemicals,” Vann said. “Overall, we just don’t know enough about e-cig vapor to say it is safe.”

Some vape shops and lounges that mix their own juices say their products are just glycerin with no or low levels of nicotine. However, every pod produced by popular national manufacturer Juul contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes and at higher concentrated levels than a single cigarette, Vann said.

HERO Coalition members express concern, saying that could lead to a whole new cycle of addiction and a new generation of users.

Karnes said there is also worry about vape juice being infused with harder drugs and young people making their own juice.

School administrators and parents concede they have been caught off guard by the surging popularity of e-cigarettes and their lack of awareness about them. In that regard, vaping is similar to the advent of young people’s use of social media platforms when they first took hold.

WHS assistant principal Paul Sparby calls vaping a “perplexing issue for the school district” because e-cigarettes are different from conventional cigarettes in many ways.

For one, they come in different shapes and sizes. There are vaping devices that look like USB flash drives, pens, markers, perfume bottles, cell phones and more. There’s even a speaker version that lets you listen to your favorite music while drawing on your favorite smoke. That makes the devices appealing to young people and look unsuspecting in a student backpack.

Vapes also can be used quickly and discreetly – in a 2-3 second puff, not like cigarettes that burn down over a few minutes and must be extinguished. And one device can be shared by many students.

Finally, e-cig vapor tends not to linger as long as tobacco smoke, although it does come with a scent of the juice being used.

“It’s not an issue we’re going to solve overnight and it might get worse before it gets better,” Sparby said.

“Some of the questions we got from parents at parent-teacher conferences reflects that we all are struggling to understand and address the issue,” District 110 superintendent Pat Devine said at the HERO Coalition meeting.

Nationally, the FDA has launched an unprecedented crackdown of manufacturers and sellers to slow down the epidemic of teen vaping. Five firms – Juul, Vuse, MarkTen, Blu and Logic – have been put on notice to come up with plans to reduce use of their products by minors. Efforts also are under way to educate retailers to support enforcement of youth access laws to reduce underage sales and access to tobacco.

Locally, HERCO Coalition members agree that education is key. That includes educating youth and parents on the risks of all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

In a letter, high school administrators asked parents to have a conversation with their children about vaping and communicate that possession and/or use of e-cigarettes are prohibited on school property.

Other education channels could include health care providers, health classes at school, coaches and student peers.

“The majority of our kids are making good choices,” Farrell said, “and it’s important we tap into these young people for strategies and as advocates for non-use.”

The HERO Coalition plans to engage its members and other resources, she adds, to focus on a community wide education/awareness campaign on vaping. In the meantime, go to the HERO Coalition website at for some recommended resources.

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