Note: This is the second in a three-part series addressing the issues of electronic cigarette use, especially as it relates to youth.

For the first time since 2000, tobacco usage is on the rise.

That fact was revealed in the 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey, which is administered every three years to students by the Minnesota Department of Health.

The state survey indicates that one of the primary reasons for the rise in tobacco use is due to increased use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes).

The report revealed one in four middle-school and high-school students in Minnesota had tried e-cigarettes (teens call it vaping or JUULing). Half of high school seniors reported having tried e-cigarettes at least once. The survey also indicates 19.2 percent of students are currently using e-cigarettes. 

According to Jennifer Nelson, the statewide health improvement partnership (SHIP) coordinator for Southwest Health and Human Services, that is a 49 percent increase in use compared to the survey conducted in 2014.

Nelson and Ann Orren, Southwest Health and Human Services community public health supervisor, were in Redwood Falls Jan. 21 to address the issue of e-cigarette use, also known as vaping, among youth to an audience of Redwood Area School District staff.

The intent of the meeting was to raise awareness among educators and to provide them with some tips to help them identify students who may be using e-cigarettes.

The problem, said Orren, is that the devices students are using do not look like traditional e-cigarettes. Instead, they are taking the shape of everyday items students have with them in school. That, added Orren, could be in the form of a flash drive, highlighter, pen or even on a sweatshirt.

Yes, said Orren, devices have been developed that allow for e-cigarette use in a sweatshirt drawstring. Students who look like they may be chewing on that string could actually be vaping right in the classroom.

Is this an issue in this area?

The youth tobacco survey indicates 9.4 percent of eighth graders indicated at the time they took the survey that they have used tobacco including e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. That number increased to 13.8 percent for ninth graders and to 16.4 percent for students in Grade 11.

According to Nelson, “the rise of the market leader JUUL has spurred a massive increase in e-cigarette use among youth.”

In fact, Nelson added, it has sparked a new term knowing as JUULing. The JUUL pods that provide a source of nicotine come in youth-friendly flavors. Each pod is the equivalent in terms of nicotine content to a pack of cigarettes.

Nelson said parents, educators and the community as a whole need to inform themselves of the dangers of using electronic cigarettes and to keep up on the most recent forms those devices are taking.

Although she has not yet found an example, Orren said there is apparently now an e-cigarette on the market that looks and operates like a pen.

It is easy to conceal the use of e-cigarettes simply because there is minimal exhaled vapor and that which is exhaled does not have an odor. So, a student can simply take a puff of an e-cigarette, exhale into their sleeve or collar and no one would ever know what they are doing.

The message being perpetuated and now grasped by youth, as well as their parents and other adults, is that use of e-cigarettes is not harmful. For Nelson, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Nicotine, she added, is highly addictive, and people can become hooked on it even after one use. The danger is enhanced, said Orren, when youth using electronic cigarettes utilize those devices to inhale other things, like marijuana.

She added just recently there was a bust where people were vaping PCP.

Nelson and Orren both said they believe the flavors of the pods being sold are intended to attract youth. Both Orren and Nelson added work is being done through Southwest Health and Human Services to make access to electronic cigarettes and the juices used in them more limited.

Yet, in the end, regardless of what happens it is up to those who are interacting with the youth to educate them about the consequences.