For the first time in 17 years, tobacco use among teenagers has seen a significant increase, according to the American Lung Association. This is credited to the popularity of electronic cigarettes among youth.

Students, parents, coaches and other concerned residents gathered at Two Harbors High School on March 14 to hear speakers Amanda Cassady of the American Lung Association and Sarah Kemp, a nurse practitioner at Lake View Clinic, address the growing epidemic.

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The speakers are also advocating for local action to raise citywide age limits for tobacco purchases.

What is an e-cigarette?

An electronic cigarette is any electronic product that converts liquid nicotine into vapor. These devices, which typically have a battery and electric coil, heat up the flavored nicotine oil, converting it into an aerosol that a user inhales into their lungs. They're also known as e-cigs, e-juice and vapes, and are very small easily concealable devices.

"The most popular product among students is the new generation of e-cigs known as Juuls," Cassady said. "It's a very small, very sleek e-cigarette device. It looks very much like a flash drive. It's very easy for kids to conceal and hide their usage in the classroom, anywhere in the school. It plugs into a USB port to charge, so when it's plugged in, it looks like a USB drive."

Juul, a name brand of e-cigarette, uses a small pod system that contains nicotine salts, which provide about 200 puffs per pod. Pods are typically sold in four-packs, in a wide variety of flavors, at convenience stores for about $25 per pack.

Although Juuls are the most common e-cigarette, the new Suorin Drop-brand vapor device is on the rise. The device can use any of the nicotine juices on the market, unlike the Juul, which only works with one type of pod.

What makes vaping dangerous among youth?

"What's interesting about the teenage brain is that the teen brain is more receptive to nicotine," Cassady said. "And these devices provide very concentrated hits of nicotine, which can lead to developing an addiction very quickly."

Flavors mask the harsh taste of tobacco, making it easier for kids to get hooked on nicotine.

Juul pods have as much nicotine as two packs of cigarettes. Cassady said some teens she has spoken with will use as many as four pods in a day.

E-cigarettes also contain heavy metals, particulates and cancer-causing agents, the effects of which haven't been fully researched yet as they're still relatively new.

"And students are vaping everywhere," Cassady said. "Everywhere they can get away with it. In classrooms, buses, wherever. In fact, I've spoken in classrooms about this issue and had students trying to hide their vaping right in front of me."

What can be done?

"You've taken the first steps by being here tonight," Cassady said. "Educate yourselves. Talk to your kids and spread the information."

Cassady is also encouraging residents to support raising the tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21 in their cities as it reduces teen access to the products.

"There are a couple of bills in the state to pursue this statewide, but they'll likely not pass this year. They need to see more support on the local level," Cassady said. "Kind of like how we became smoke-free indoors; it started on the local level first in order to build support and prove we really want this."

So far, 23 communities in Minnesota have enacted 21 tobacco rules, including Duluth.

If you go

Who: Amanda Cassady, American Lung Association, and Sarah Kemp, Lake View Clinic

What: Second vaping presentation in Lake County

When: 6 p.m. Thursday, March 28

Where: William Kelley School Auditorium, Silver Bay