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In Bemidji and beyond, teen vaping on the rise: Officials worry about health hazards

BEMIDJI—Payton Erickson was 16 when he first tried a vaporizer. He switched to cigarettes for a year or two, then went back to vaping midway through his senior year of high school, he said.

Erickson, now 19 and a recent Bemidji High School graduate, said he grew to hate cigarettes: the burn, the taste, the stigma, and the smell that lingered on his clothes. Vaping is cheaper, simpler, and gives him the same nicotine buzz, Erickson said.

And a friend of Erickson, a current high school student the Pioneer agreed not to name, started smoking cigarettes at 14—a girl at a skatepark offered him one—and still indulges occasionally at a party, but he mainly uses a small vaporizer that fits in his palm.

They're part of a swiftly growing trend: in 2017, 11 percent of high school seniors reported that they had vaped nicotine in the 30 days prior, according to an annual "Monitoring the Future" survey funded by an arm of the National Institutes of Health. That figure nearly doubled in 2018 to 20.9 percent. Only 3.6 percent of seniors said they smoke daily, the survey found. That's the lowest figure it's reported to date and down from 22.4 percent two decades ago.

Vaporizers and electronic cigarettes are often considered a way to curb or quit smoking—a more healthful step down from tobacco cigarettes that still delivers the same rush of nicotine.

Erickson said he knows vaping isn't good for him but thinks it's better than cigarettes. His friend felt similarly. If or when the time comes, they agreed, it would be easier for them to quit vaping than to quit smoking.

"People know what cigarettes can do to you," Erickson said.

'Safer, but it's not safe'

The harmful chemicals produced by vaporizers are similar to those in tobacco smoke but are present in much lower levels, according to staff at the Mayo Clinic.

"It's safer, but it's not safe," Dr. J. Taylor Hays, the director of the clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center, said in an article on the clinic's website. "What we don't know are what long-term effects will these lower-level toxicants have."

Nicotine is a highly addictive substance that, for people younger than 25, can disrupt the growth of connections in the brain that control learning and attention, according to another article by Dr. Jon Ebbert, also at the dependency center, and can make the brain more vulnerable to other addictions in the future.

Beyond that, the potential long-term effects of vaporizers haven't been explored thoroughly, according to Ebbert, but some of the shorter-term effects can include increases in shortness of breath, cough and fevers. Some pneumonia cases have been associated with vaporizer use, and the vapor itself may contain potentially toxic ingredients. Ebbert also claims that studies have not shown e-cigarettes to be an effective way to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes compared to other methods such as nicotine patches. And teens and young adults who've tried e-cigarettes were about 3.5 times more likely to to smoke tobacco cigarettes than their non-vaping counterparts, he wrote.

Hays said there are safer ways to quit smoking, such as counseling and medication.

Tough to spot

The increasing number of school-aged vape users has become a cause for concern among school administrators like Bemidji High School Principal Jason Stanoch and Assistant Principal Kyle Resler, who worry about the health effects of vaping and are charged with keeping it out of their school.

"Our children don't think there's anything wrong with it," Resler said. "I think the kids are looking at them as they're not as harmful because it's not a rolled up piece of tobacco."

Stanoch estimated that fewer than 10 percent of Bemidji High Schoolers use an e-cig regularly; Erickson and his friend put the figure at about 40 percent. About 1,300 students attend the school.

"We don't know the health effects, yet, or the long-term health impacts because it's such a new product," Stanoch said.

School leaders said it's tough for staff to catch students vaping because the devices are compact, typically, and innocuous-looking. Vaporizers can be stuffed in a pocket quickly and easily and, unlike cigarettes, the smell doesn't linger or stick to clothes. A user can exhale the vapor nearly invisibly and, apparently, without odor if they hold it in their lungs for a few moments. Erickson's friend said he'd taken a few undetected puffs of his e-cig while speaking with the Pioneer. Across the table, Erickson laughed—he hadn't noticed.

"I've been doing it for a long time," the friend said.

New restrictions incoming

Stanoch and Resler aren't the only ones trying to prevent teen smoking and vape use, either.

Late last month, Beltrami County commissioners voted 4-1 to raise the legal age to 21 to buy tobacco products and tobacco-related products such as vaporizers. County leaders plan to put the new restrictions in place this spring, and Bemidji's city government might follow suit.

More than 20 Minnesota cities and counties have increased the legal age to purchase tobacco since 2017 amid a nationwide "Tobacco 21" push by the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation.

Erickson and his friend expect that the new age minimum might keep youths with a passing interest in vaping from getting their hands on one, but it won't have much of an effect on people who already vape or smoke regularly.

"It's all about who you know," the friend said.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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