Vaping still an issue for high school students
“We try to take a proactive approach with the students, with education ... it seems to be helping.”
WORTHINGTON — NO SMOKING, proclaims the red and white sign in the bathrooms at Worthington High School, and beneath that, in equally large all-caps print, lies a second rule: NO VAPING.
“It’s been more within the past two to three years that it’s become an issue,” said Tony Hastings, WHS assistant principal, of the use of e-cigarettes in District 518 schools.
E-cigarettes or vapes are battery-powered devices that allow users to inhale aerosolized liquid, sometimes called e-juice, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. In Minnesota, their use is prohibited indoors wherever cigarette use is prohibited, and the legal age for using vapes and all other tobacco products is 21.
In 2019, 26.4% of high school juniors in Minnesota reported they had vaped in the past 30 days — and so did 16.3% of freshmen and 11.1% of eighth-graders.
Nearly all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is extremely addictive and can harm the adolescent brain, according to the health department. They can also contain ultrafine particles, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals like nickel, tin and lead and other chemicals that cause cancer, as well as serving as a trigger for asthma attacks.
Hastings said that while students might believe vaping is safer than smoking, it hasn’t been around that long and the long-term effects of e-cigarettes remain unknown.
“They really don’t know what they’re putting into themselves,” Hastings said. “Because sometimes, they’ll just get it from a friend … who knows where that came from?”
That easy access, too, is a problem.
“It seems like it’s fairly easy for students to get their hands on the stuff,” said Hastings, noting that the fruity, flavored e-juices seemed especially popular.
Nobles County is considering changing its tobacco ordinance, and one item under consideration is banning sales of flavored vape cartridges in the county. There will be a hearing on the ordinance at the 9 a.m. meeting of the Nobles County Board of Commissioners on March 22.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 72.3% of junior e-cigarette users get them from their friends, with 14% buying them from a vape shop and 9.6% from the internet.
“Kids can go on the internet and find them… some stores will card them, I don’t know if all of them will,” Hastings said. “It’s not as difficult as it should be, I believe, for students to gain access to this stuff.”
The devices, too, can be tough to detect by sight or scent. They can look like a cigarette, but they can also look like a USB drive or a pen. They don’t require a lighter and run on internal batteries. They don’t smell like cigarettes, and while they might smell like fruit, they might also not have much scent at all.
“We try to take a proactive approach with the students, with education,” Hastings said. “... it seems to be helping.”
While there are vape detectors installed in the WHS, Learning Center and Worthington Middle School bathrooms and locker rooms, District 518 also uses the Vape Educate program, which allows students caught vaping to go through an online informational program about its effects.
WHS students who get caught vaping do face consequences. Parents or a guardian will be called in, and then the student will be suspended for the remainder of the day, Hastings said. Upon the student’s return to school, they go through the Vape Educate program there.
Students who are caught vaping again usually get referred to resources on addiction and cessation, and school officials speak with the parents to find out how they can assist.
“Most of these vape pens are loaded with nicotine, and they become addicted to the nicotine,” Hastings explained. “... we try to get the parents in the right direction, to see if there’s some outpatient kind of addiction treatment that we can assist (the student with).”
He believes some students picked up the habit during the distance learning period prompted by COVID-19, and some returned to school addicted to vaping.
The school has also caught students with vape cartridges filled with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and consequences for that are more serious. Police are involved and a suspension with an expulsion can occur, Hastings said.
“(Vaping’s) not a huge problem, but it is a problem,” he added. “... what we’ve done to be proactive has done a lot to deter a lot of students from doing it — at least here.”