Not that long ago, you could pretty much pick out the kids in a high school who were smokers. It's not so easy now, though, with nicotine-delivery devices that look like pens being used for "vaping."

"There's no one kind of student anymore," Duluth East High School Principal Danette Seboe said in an interview this week with the News Tribune Editorial Board. "It's the student athletes. It's the 4.0 students. It's students who are very active in their school and community. It's all of those students, too."

Just like kids from generations past who smoked cigarettes, today's "those students, too" are getting just as hooked on nicotine, a deadly, cancer-causing habit, via vaping. More than half the students at East are believed to have tried vaping devices, Seboe said, citing a student survey.

"We have seen an explosion in use within the school, on buses, on school property," she said. "This fall, particularly - and that was after we saw a drastic increase last year."

The Duluth City Council Monday can take a huge step in addressing what the Surgeon General and public-health advocates say is an "epidemic," called that because vaping is growing so rapidly and among so many young people. Councilors can give initial approval to an ordinance that will raise the age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21.

For the health of our community and our coming generations, Duluth can join Hermantown and 20 other Minnesota cities and counties that already have embraced "Tobacco 21." Duluth's elected officials really should have taken action long ago - should have been leaders instead of followers. But they can still act now.

"Raising (the tobacco age) to 21 is just common sense to get it out of schools," Pat McKone, the regional senior director for the American Lung Association in Duluth, told editorial board members. "Nicotine at a young age actually primes the brain for other addictions."

Nearly everyone who uses tobacco started before turning 21 - 95 percent of them, according to the American Lung Association and others.

"If you manage to get someone addicted to nicotine before the age of 25, you've got them. And so this is why the tobacco companies over decades have tried to target the younger generation with their advertising and marketing," Dr. Tim Zager, a pediatrician at Essentia Health, stated. "(Vaping) is no longer just a gateway (to cigarettes or other drug use). The floodgates are open. (Vaping devices) are so concealable. ... Every public-health agency is endorsing Tobacco 21."

Even middle-schoolers are vaping, Ordean-East Middle School Principal Gina Kleive said in the interview with the newspaper.

"On the school bus, in school, in the restrooms, in the hallways," Kleive said. "It is happening, and we're responding. But it's disturbing when a young kid says, 'I need this nicotine. I didn't think this would be me, and now I need it. ... It helps me calm.'"

Duluth's schools are doing their part to vanquish vaping. They're talking to students and parents about the dangers. They're training teachers to spot the activity. And they're cracking down, willing even to hand down suspensions for repeat offenders.

The Duluth City Council Monday has the opportunity to do its part, too.

"We want to help people get to that point where they're not going to start (using tobacco)," Jill Doberstein, the tobacco treatment program manager at Essentia, said. "If we can get them to 21, hopefully they never start."