WORTHINGTON - Though the extent to which southwest Minnesota teenagers are vaping remains somewhat unclear. flavored nicotine products in electronic cigarettes and similar devices continue to be an upcoming trend that has public health officials, advocates for teenagers and others concerned.

According to a 2016 Minnesota Department of Health survey of ninth- and 11th-grade students, more than 12 percent of Nobles County 11th-graders reported having used any kind of tobacco product. Slightly greater than 6 percent of ninth-graders reported the same.

The same survey results show that nearly one-quarter of Murray County 11th-graders reported using some kind of tobacco product in 2016 - the highest when compared to other surrounding counties.

When comparing survey results from area counties, e-cigarettes were almost always identified as the tobacco product of choice when compared to traditional cigarettes or other smokeless tobacco products.

“Big tobacco companies are targeting youth in their marketing strategies,” said Cecilia Amadou-Bofa, Nobles County Public Health educator with Community Wellness Partners, about one of the major reasons e-cigarette use is higher than other tobacco products.

According to Clearway Minnesota, with traditional smoking rates continually falling, e-cigarettes are an opportunity for big tobacco companies to hook the next generation of smokers.

They attempt to do so by making their products appealing to teenagers in a variety of ways, including producing fruit or candy-flavored nicotine pods, making them less expensive than regular cigarettes and creating the products in a variety of colors and patterns.

They’re also easily concealable, added Amadou-Bofa, as they emit no odor and are smoked from devices disguised as ordinary objects. The Juul, for example, is a vaping device that resembles a regular USB drive and even charges by insertion into a computer’s USB drive.

Vaping inside school

The fact that these products are more easily concealable than traditional cigarettes may be one explanation as to why there don’t seem to be a huge issue with them inside the walls of Worthington High School, said WHS Assistant Principal Tony Hastings.

“It’s not one of those things where kids are getting in trouble left and right,” he said. “But it can be pretty underground.”

On average, Hastings said he only has about one incident annually in relation to e-cigarette use inside school, on campus or during school-sanctioned activities.

Other area schools reported having confiscated a handful of these devices.

At Jackson County Central High School in Jackson, principal Larry Traetow said he confiscated 12 vaping devices last year and, as of Friday, six during the current school year.

He said it has been his experience that there are students willing to give teachers or administration an indication if their peers are vaping on campus.

“I hope to attack (this issue) as aggressively as I can, so kids understand it’s better to keep it outside the school than bringing it in,” he said.  

Over at Murray County Central High School in Slayton, principal Jacob Scandrett said he had five vaping incidents last year.

“I have had three incidences to this point in the year and expect more,” Scandrett said in a Friday morning email.

Luverne High School Principal Ryan Johnson said teen vaping on school grounds continues to be an issue, adding that he is sure there are many more students that vape outside of school as well.

Although Stan De Zeeuw just began principal duties at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School earlier this year, he said teen vaping is widely discussed at principal meetings.

Like Worthington, Windom Area High School does not have huge vaping concern, said WAHS Principal Jake Tietje.   

For many of these schools, district tobacco policies have been updated to include e-cigarettes, which are treated synonymously with traditional cigarette confiscations on the tobacco-free campuses.

At Worthington, law enforcement may be contacted and a student may be cited and suspended for one to three days, Hastings said. There may be other consequences dictated by the Minnesota State High School League for students in athletics or activities, he added.

Hastings said the school focuses on preventative efforts, like hanging posters in student restrooms and hallways, having them watch informational video messages and providing informational literature to parents during parent/teacher conferences.

Just as Worthington’s district policies have been updated to reflect the change in technology and trends, so have health curriculums.

According to Worthington Middle School Health and Physical Education Instructor Jessica Hogan, the facts, myths and consequences of vaping are addressed as part of the eighth grade health curriculum’s tobacco and smoking unit. The issue is also taught as part of the high school health curriculum, said WHS Health and Physical Education Teacher Rachel Peters.

Amadou-Bofa - who believes in educating youths about the dangers of tobacco use - said educators, particularly those in schools, should be cautious and consider the source of any education-related tools or resources. Some tobacco companies, she added, have produced materials disguised as educational resources, but it’s just yet another marketing strategy.

“The end goal is to educate kids as to what kinds of products are available to them,” Amadou-Bofa said.

Hooking lifetime smokers

Amadou-Bofa said that because teenager’s brains are not yet fully developed, they’re more susceptible to being influenced by newly introduced environments and behaviors. That makes them a demographic that, scientifically, has a more difficult time quitting smoking than people who begin smoking at an older age.

“You have a smoker for life if you get a teen,” she said. “Habits are set in stone and hard to break.”

According to Amadou-Bofa, research also shows that youths who begin smoking at a young age are more likely to use illicit drugs. That includes marijuana, which she says exists in an oil form that may be smoked with the e-cigarette devices.

That’s another reason why public health officials like Amadou-Bofa are trying to counter and fight back against big tobacco companies’ marketing strategies.

In line with preventative efforts, Amadou-Bofa said it’s important to increase the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

“It’s hard to do, but the most effective way at addressing this issue,” she said.

She thinks this because, as research supports, youths younger than 18 are not necessarily obtaining flavored tobacco products online like health officials once thought. Instead, they’re recruiting their friends who are old enough to legally purchase the product for them, usually in their own communities, wherever tobacco products are sold.

“When the need is there, they want it right now,” Amadou-Bofah said.

Other potential preventative measures could include additional taxation of these products, which Amadou-Boufa said could in turn be utilized for educational efforts.

In an effort to mobilize communities to educate and handle these issues, Amadou-Bofah said her office may be able to provide educational resources and training opportunities. She may be reached at (507) 295-5389.