Teen vaping targeted in Fairmont

FAIRMONT — The Minnesota Senate recently passed a bill that prohibits the use of e-cigarettes wherever tobacco smoking is now banned under the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, which covers the vast majority of public buildings and workplaces in the state. The bill was aimed in part at reversing the growing popularity of e-cigarettes among young people.

Chief House author of the bill, Rep. Laurie Halvorson, DFL-Eagan, said, “We’re losing ground for the first time in over 17 years of great work by Minnesotans in helping to keep smoking rates low. Now youth tobacco use is on the rise and e-cigarettes are a direct cause.”

The 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found that one in five high-schoolers use e-cigarettes, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2014.

Steph Johnson, project coordinator for the Martin County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, had contacted her and asked her for input and examples of what’s going on in schools in Martin County. Johnson shared local statistics and violations, which she said are similar across the state. A 2017 survey found that 18.5 percent of Martin County 11th-graders reported using tobacco in the previous 30 days. Johnson said new, local data should be coming out in the next few weeks.

MCSAP’s goal is to prevent marijuana, alcohol and prescription drug abuse among youth in Martin County. A focus in recent years has been to educate parents on what vaping is.

“One of the biggest issues we have is that the kids know more about this than the adults do, so we’re trying to educate the parents. New products are coming out all the time,” Johnson said.

When members of MCSAP attend different events around the county, Johnson brings along devices that have been confiscated from youth at area high schools to show parents. The devices look like a pen, flash drive or any other utensil that can be found in a pencil box.

“I had a mom who told me that she was taking Juul pods out of the washing machine to give them to her son because she thought it was a flash drive,” said Johnson, referencing a popular device.

In September 2018, the Food and Drug Administration said e-cigarette use among teens in an epidemic. That same month, Fairmont High School held a community conversation about vaping and e-cigarettes in order to educate parents and warn them how dangerous and addictive they are.

“You might think your kids are too young to be exposed to it but they’re getting exposed to it,” said Johnson, explaining that she has had fourth-graders tell her they know what vaping is.

As Johnson pointed out, e-cigarette devices were created as an alternative method to get people to stop smoking, which is why people think it’s safer.

Vaping products, including Juul, don’t contain tobacco, but they do contain nicotine, which many youth don’t realize because not all products are FDA-approved or regulated, which is how manufacturers get away with misleading advertising.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, most e-cigarettes contain nicotine. Nicotine is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s. Young people who use e-cigarettes may be more likely to smoke cigarettes in the future.

A statistic from the U.S. Department of Health notes that 95 percent of addicted adult smokers started by age 21.

As Johnson pointed out, e-cigarette companies market to youth with the bright colors and unique shapes of the devices and flavors, including pineapple, passion fruit and cotton candy.

“We’re trying to teach the kids that they need to be smart enough to realize that these companies are marketing to them because if they get them now, they’ll be a life-long user and will be fighting addiction their whole life,” Johnson said.

She believes Fairmont has done a good job of cracking down on e-cigarettes, but there have been 39 violations this school year at Fairmont High School. A violation means a student has been caught on school grounds with a vaping device. Seventeen students were in ninth grade, which means they were under the legal age.

Johnson said Traci Lardy, dean of students at Fairmont High School, has taken the confiscated devices to teacher meetings to help educate teachers on what they look like and what to be on the lookout for.

Use of a product can be detected because flavored juices smell like the sweet flavors, but there are also unflavored juices that are unscented.

“More and more people are now using vaping devices for illegal substances. You can vape marijuana and even meth,” Johnson said.

“As educators, we need help from the parents because we only have students for a number of hours at school and then they go home,” she explained.

Even if a student is 18, they are still not allowed to have any vaping products on school grounds because the school is a tobacco-free environment and tobacco includes nicotine products. The regulation was changed to include the word e-cigarette in the school handbook this year.

Several places in Fairmont sell vaping products, but as Johnson pointed out, it’s easy to buy them online and all you need to do is click a button saying you’re 18.

“You need a card to order online so as parents, if we give our kids cards, we need to be responsible and know what they’re buying online,” Johnson said.

Johnson shared that some YOCO students went to a youth in education leadership summit and shared some of their findings.

“They had a group of students that talked about the differences in their school after they helped advocate for Tobacco21 in their community. They saw a huge decline in e-cigarette usage in their school the following year as far as violations,” Johnson said.

Tobacco21, or T-21, is an effort to raise the legal age of purchasing and smoking tobacco products to 21.

As Johnson pointed out, older kids can buy these devices legally and sell them to younger kids in school, which is why T-21 would be helpful to have in Martin County. However, she said they’re working on it statewide, which will be more effective.

“If you can’t buy something in Fairmont, but you can go get it in Welcome, then that’s still pretty easy,” Johnson explained.

Mankato recently adopted T-21, making it the 32nd Minnesota city or county to pass it.

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