Duluth East High School Principal Danette Seboe described the growing use of e-cigarettes on school grounds this year as nothing short of "an explosion," and she expressed hopes that concerned families will take time from their busy schedules to discuss the problem Thursday night.
A second community meeting on the same subject also has been scheduled at Denfeld High School for Nov. 14.
The 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found that nearly 10 percent of middle schoolers and about 38 percent of high school students had tried vaping. Half of all those same students reported using the products within the past 30 days.
Those numbers don't surprise Seboe, as school staff members continue to confiscate vaping devices on a daily basis, even though many discreet users continue to escape detection.
"It can be such a hidden thing that it's pretty easy to do it and be unnoticed," Seboe said.
Seboe said teachers have been trained to be on the watch for popular e-cigarette devices, including Juuls and Suorins.
But Jill Doberstein, supervisor of Essentia Health's tobacco cessation program, said many parents remain in the dark about the devices, which adults sometimes mistake for flash drives or highlighters.
"With nearly every presentation we give on this subject, parents' jaws are really just on the floor by the end," she said.
Dr. Sarah Manney, a pediatrician for Essentia, called the growing use of e-cigarettes by area youth "an epidemic," noting that many of these products are heavily laden with nicotine. She pointed to the popular Juul as a mechanism to deliver more nicotine in a single consumable "pod" than what you'd find in a full pack of cigarettes.
"We're creating a whole new generation of addicts," Manney said.
"Kids have malleable brains. Their brains are still developing rapidly, and so when we hit that young brain with a drug - nicotine or another - it really can affect their brain growth for the rest of their life," she explained. "It can cause them to become addicts, not just with nicotine but with other drugs, too."
More needs to be done to educate both young people and adults about the risks of vaping nicotine-laced products, said Pat McKone, regional senior director of the American Lung Association.
"It primes the brain for other addictions. It's not just anecdotal that 80 percent of people who are in treatment for opioids are smokers and are addicted to nicotine," she said.
Manney said prolonged exposure to nicotine can damage the heart and lungs. But she said carcinogens and other harmful ingredients also are often found in the vaporized products, including irritating organic compounds, tin, nickel and lead. Only time will tell exactly how big a toll on public health e-cigarettes will take, Manney said. But she warned there will be negative consequences.
However, vaping products vary and some contain little to no nicotine, said Cap O'Rourke, policy director for the Independent Vapor Retailers of Minnesota, a trade organization representing businesses that sell the devices.
He also said critics tend to overlook the positive impact of the industry.
"When you look at the data, the youth smoking rate is at an all-time low, and it continues to drop," O'Rourke said. "In fact, nationally it has dropped at a faster rate since vaping came onto the market than it did beforehand."
"For years we've been hearing: This is a gateway to smoking, and the data just doesn't bear that out," he said, suggesting that vaping poses far less risk to public health than the combustible tobacco products they are supplanting.
Manney said that argument in defense of vaping angers her, because the way the industry markets products is designed specifically to appeal to young people, many of whom would never have been drawn to take up smoking conventional cigarettes.
"They're flavoring these products, and they're making them very palatable to kids," she said, pointing to cotton candy, vanilla and bubble gum-flavored vaping solutions that can get young people hooked on nicotine.
Seboe said vaping has caught on with all types of students.
"Nobody's immune to this," she said. "I think it has become so acceptable that we're seeing student athletes. We're seeing honor students. It's everywhere."
Seboe said she has had students who vape say they would never smoke a cigarette, yet they seem oblivious to the health risks of vaping. First time-offenders caught with e-cigarette devices at East are typically given the choice of receiving a written citation with the prospect of up to a $300 fine. Alternatively, they can write an essay detailing the dangers of e-cigarettes.
Seboe said almost every student caught with a vaping device at her school has picked the latter punishment.
O'Rourke said the retailers he represents do not support underage consumption of their products and suggested reports of student use are often overblown.
He pointed to Minnesota research that he said indicates: "While a number of kids are using the products, the majority of those kids are only using them four to five times a month, and that is not indicative of regular usage."
McKone contends that more should be done on the federal level to limit the amount of nicotine contained in vaping products.
But she also supports local efforts to raise the minimum age of purchase for tobacco and e-cigarette type products. The Hermantown City Council is expected to vote on an ordinance to raise that age from 18 to 21 on Monday, and McKone expects to see the Duluth City Council consider a similar measure in the near future.
She noted that 18-year-old high school students can readily purchase vaping devices and distribute them to friends, serving as a conduit for their spread.
If further age regulations are to occur, O'Rourke said he'd prefer to see that happen at a national or state level, rather than allowing for confusing patchwork of local rules to emerge.
If you go
The Duluth Public Schools invite parents and students to attend one of two community meetings on the growing use of e-cigarettes and the risks they pose to young people.
• Thursday from 6:30-8 p.m. in the Duluth East High School Auditorium, 301 N. 40th Ave. E.
• Wednesday, Nov. 14, from 6:30-8 p.m. in the Denfeld High School Auditorium, 401 N. 44th Ave. W.