Dark image: local third-graders vaping nicotine, middle schooler inhaling the equivalent of six packets a day

Melissa Markegard, Smoking Prevention Coordinator for Fargo Cass Public Health, shows off some of the popular vaping devices with teens in August 2019. At the time, health officials in Wisconsin and Illinois announced the hospitalization of more than a dozen adolescents and young adults linked to vaping.  Derek Murray / WDAY

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Melissa Markegard, smoking prevention coordinator at Fargo Cass Public Health, said behavior once seen mostly in high schools has spread to middle schools and now elementary schools.

“It just has that trickle-down effect,” she says.

A report:

New data from the latest Minnesota Youth Smoking Survey found that among high school students in the state who vape, more than 33% do so every day.

Jason McCoy, smoking prevention coordinator at Clay County Public Health, said it was double the number in 2017.

It’s even worse in Clay County, he said, where some school districts have rates of daily vaping use among grade 11 students as high as 43%.

“It’s going to be a crushing wave coming our way,” McCoy said.

Smoking prevention specialists paint a picture of nicotine addiction happening earlier than ever; kids as young as third grade who use harmless-looking, easy-to-hide devices to inhale a concentrated form of nicotine, mixed with tantalizing flavors.

Derek Johnson, school resources manager at Fargo Davies High School, said in one case, parents provided the vaping device to their child, not realizing it was a problem.

He said that with students returning to school full time rather than distance learning, they are “constantly” caught vaping; and still more girls than boys.

“For every boy, we’ll probably catch five women,” Johnson said.

Few children are interested in the traditional way of smoking – it’s all about the vape.

In his four years as an ORS at Davies, Johnson said he only confiscated one pack of cigarettes.

The reusable Juul Pod system was the first to not throw a plume of smoke, making it popular with college students looking to cover it up, Johnson said.

Markegard said kids in his tobacco education class talk about how they vape in the car with their parents without their knowledge, as they hide the device in their hoodies and trap the vapor in their lungs. until there is nothing left to expire.

In early 2020, a nationwide ban went into effect for many flavored e-cigarette products, including cartridges and pods, but did not apply to many other devices, including disposable devices.

Now, these disposable products are all the rage, available in a plethora of sweet, fruity, and minty flavors with names like Skittles, Lucky Charms, and Fruity Pebbles. Others are labeled the same way as energy drinks, with names like Bad Bull and Bang.

Some of the new disposable vapes contain up to 2,200 puffs, McCoy said, or up to three packs of nicotine cigarettes.

He said a Moorhead middle school student recently taken with a vape was consuming the same amount of nicotine as in six packs of cigarettes a day.

“You are starting to see how serious this problem is and how much we need to stand up and take a stand against these products,” McCoy said.

With the salt-based nicotine used, the stimulant drug is absorbed faster.

“You get hooked a lot faster, so it’s a tough situation we’re in right now,” Markegard said.

Johnson said that another problem with vaping is that a user never really knows what they are inhaling.

Product regulation can be minimal, patchy, and different from city to city, state to state.

“The industry is moving so fast – faster than we can keep up,” he said.

Johnson said when he found a freshman at Fargo Davies with a vape, it was likely a bottle filled with flavored tobacco. Juniors and seniors taken with them usually use marijuana concentrates.

Vape marijuana use is also increasing among Minnesota youth.

McCoy said that number rose from around 11% in 2017 to 18% last year.

Vaping products containing THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, cannot be purchased at local stores.

However, pre-loaded pods containing THC are sold in states where recreational use of marijuana is legal.

“They are easy to find,” McCoy said.

He urges parents to look for a green leaf on their child’s vape, a common way to distinguish between a nicotine and THC vape.

Parents should understand the consequences of their children using these concentrated forms, Johnson said.

A rolled up marijuana cigarette can contain 8-10% THC. With concentrates, it’s over 90% THC, he says.

Children who use marijuana vaping concentrates get sick and have lung problems, Johnson said.

Federal and state governments are monitoring these illnesses, known as e-cigarettes, or vaping, product use-associated lung injuries, or (EVALI).

Vitamin E acetate, often used in THC vapors, is widely considered a safe dietary supplement, but it can cause chemical burns in the lungs.

It is intended to be ingested through the stomach, not inhaled, Johnson said.

Public policy changes are key to reducing youth vaping, McCoy said. When cities impose age restrictions and flavor bans, he said, use drops dramatically.

As of April 27, 2021, the U.S. Postal Service will no longer post vaping products. Other delivery companies are following suit, cutting off an avenue for teens to get them.

Melissa Markegard, Smoking Prevention Coordinator for Fargo Cass Public Health, shows off some of the popular vaping devices with teens in August 2019. At the time, health officials in Wisconsin and Illinois announced the hospitalization of more than a dozen adolescents and young adults linked to vaping. Derek Murray / WDAY

The signs that a child is using a vaporizer can be hard to spot, even in plain sight.

Parents can search:

-Unusual and unknown items; vapes can look like highlighters, erasers, lipstick, makeup compacts

-New electronic devices connected or new chargers

-New sweet scents you don’t recognize

Signs of nicotine withdrawal may include:

-Behavior changes including mood swings, restlessness

-Poor performance at school, loss of interest in activities

– Abnormal cough, throat clearing and shortness of breath

-Nausea and vomiting, possible signs of nicotine poisoning known as nic-sick

Fargo Cass Public Health has launched a vaping education campaign called Spot the Signs, aimed at parents and children.

Parents can learn more about the signs of vaping use and how children cover it up.

Listen to things that may seem normal but aren’t, said Markegard. Children can ask a friend to borrow a “book” and promise to return it after class.

“They don’t borrow a book from anyone. They borrow a vaporizer, ”she says.

The campaign also challenges young people to spot the signs of their own addiction, to learn to understand their need for the product and what it means.

“We have students who suffer from panic and anxiety when they forget their vape at home,” she says.

Information on the new Fargo Cass public health campaign is available at spotthesigns.net, in social media ads and on billboards.

Another option is a new line of text to quit for teens called My Life My Quit; a program without pressure, without shame completely free.

“It’s about reaching them where they are and helping them quit when they’re ready,” McCoy said.

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