Public health students at the University of Minnesota Duluth collected surveys about knowledge and attitudes regarding the use of e-cigarettes on Wednesday at UMD’s Health Check Fair.

Eight UMD seniors enrolled in a Community Health Methods class are conducting the survey as part of a class project called Nic Free @ UMD, which aims to broaden education and awareness about the health risks associated with vaping and e-cigarette use.

Students will present their survey findings in late November, with the hopes of possible program growth from there, said Samantha Soyring, one of the senior Public Health majors involved in the effort.

“We want to educate people that electronic cigarettes aren’t a regulated item and that they are harming people,” Soyring said Wednesday in front of the group’s table at the health fair at UMD’s Kirby Ballroom. “It’s just another way the tobacco companies are getting our youth back into (being) addicted to nicotine.”

Soyring and other students at the Nic Free table handed out paper questionnaires to passers-by on Wednesday.

Questions ranged from, “Do you vape?” to, “What health issues are associated with e-cigarette use?” to various true-or-false statements about the effects of vaping.

The group had hoped to collect at least 50 surveys, and they had met that goal by noon, Soyring said. Most of the respondents had been students, but some adults had participated as well.

She said the group wanted to tackle a health issue that directly addresses the habits they see from their peers.

“It's something that's super prevalent, and we see a lot of our friends using these vape devices,” Soyring said. “All of us were kind of touched by that.”

It’s a timely subject, with serious health effects and even deaths associated with e-cigarette use in the news lately, said Taylour Blakeman, a health specialist with the American Lung Association in Duluth.

Blakeman helped advise the students as they launched their project and survey, and at Wednesday’s health fair, she was sitting one table over from the Nic Free students.

“It’s perfect timing,” she said. “As of Oct. 1, we know that more than 1,000 cases of lung illness have been related to e-cigarette use, reported to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Also, there have been 18 deaths in 15 states.

“They don’t have one answer for us right now,” Blakeman said. “It could be one chemical or another, or a combination or high concentrations, so there’s a lot of investigation and a lot of things we don’t know yet.”

Soyring said the students wanted to educate younger people, in particular, about the potential dangers of vaping. Duluth and a handful of other Minnesota cities have enacted “Tobacco 21” laws that restrict people under 21 from purchasing any kind of tobacco-related products, but in most of Minnesota, the age is still 18.

“Eighteen-year-olds are still in high school, and so they’re getting (e-cigarettes) to younger students, and younger students are starting earlier,” she said. “We've seen as young as fifth-graders using these, because teachers don't know what to look for. There's no smoke, and there's no smell.”

According to preliminary 2019 data, 1 in 4 high school juniors in Minnesota use e-cigarettes and products related to vaping, and the number of eighth-graders using such products has doubled since 2016, Blakeman said.

The Nic Free @ UMD project is meant to help public health students plan and implement a program either on campus or in the community, said Amy Versnik Nowak, UMD’s Public Health program coordinator and Community Health Methods class instructor.

“Based on the results of the needs assessment, then we're planning to put together a campuswide presentation (and ) invite people to come and learn about the issues,” Versnik Nowak said.

She said the group plans to consult with campus administration about students’ findings, and the hope is that campus and community organizations will attend the November presentation.

“We have health educators on campus that work with students with smoking cessation and those types of things,” she said. “So (we hope to have) some community groups and campus groups that would have additional information if people wanted to seek helpful services.”