FARGO — Local public health officials are sounding alarms about vaping among youth in the metro area; a problem that has only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.

Melissa Markegard, tobacco prevention coordinator at Fargo Cass Public Health, said the behavior once seen primarily in high schools spread to middle schools and now, elementary schools.

“It just has this trickle down effect,” she said.

Related:

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

New data from the latest Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey found among high school students in the state who vape, more than 33% do it every day.

Jason McCoy, tobacco prevention coordinator at Clay County Public Health, said that's double the 2017 number.

It's even worse in Clay County, he said, where some school districts have daily use vaping rates among 11th graders as high as 43%.

“This is going to be an overwhelming wave that's coming our way,” McCoy said.

Those in tobacco prevention paint a picture of nicotine addiction happening earlier than ever; kids as young as third grade who use the innocuous looking, easy to conceal devices to inhale a concentrated form of nicotine, mixed with enticing flavors.

Derek Johnson, school resource officer at Fargo Davies High School, said in one case, parents provided the vaping device to their child, not realizing it was a problem.

He said with students back in school full-time rather than distance learning, they’re “constantly” being caught vaping; and always, more girls than boys.

“For every one boy, we’ll probably catch five females,” Johnson said.

Few kids are interested in the traditional way of smoking — it’s all about vape.

In his four years as SRO at Davies, Johnson said he’s confiscated only one pack of cigarettes.

New 'disposables' most popular

The Juul pod reusable system was the first that didn’t throw out a plume of smoke, making it popular among students looking to conceal it, Johnson said.

Markegard said kids in her tobacco education class talk about how they vape in the car with their parents without them knowing, because they hide the device in their hoodie and hold the vapor in their lungs until there’s nothing left to exhale.

In early 2020, a nationwide ban went into effect for many flavored e-cigarette products including cartridges and pods, but did not apply to many other devices, including disposable devices.

Now, those disposable products are all the rage, offered in a multitude of sweet, fruity and minty flavors with names like Skittles, Lucky Charms and Fruity Pebbles. Others are labeled similarly to energy drinks, with names like Bad Bull and Bang.

Some of the new disposable vapes contain as many as 2,200 puffs, McCoy said, amounting to as much as three cigarette packs worth of nicotine.

He said a Moorhead middle school student recently caught with a vape was using the same amount of nicotine as in six packs of cigarettes a day.

“You start to see how grave of an issue this is and how much we need to stand up and take a stand against these products,” McCoy said.

With the salt-based nicotine used, the stimulant drug is absorbed more quickly.

“You become addicted that much quicker, so it's a challenging situation that we're in right now,” Markegard said.

Johnson said another problem with vaping is that a user never really knows what they’re inhaling.

Regulation of the products can be minimal, patchy and different from city to city, state to state.

“The industry is moving so fast — faster than we can keep up with,” he said.

Use of THC vapes increasing

Johnson said when he finds a freshman student at Fargo Davies with a vape, it’s likely one filled with flavored tobacco. Juniors and seniors caught with them are usually using marijuana concentrates.

Marijuana use in vapes is increasing in Minnesota youth as well.

McCoy said that number increased from around 11% in 2017 to 18% last year.

Vape products containing THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, can’t be purchased in stores locally.

However, pre-loaded pods containing THC are sold in states where recreational use of marijuana is legal.

“They’re easy to get a hold of,” McCoy said.

He urges parents to look for a green leaf on their child’s vape, a common way to distinguish between a nicotine and THC vape.

Parents should understand the consequences of their children using these concentrate forms, Johnson said.

A rolled marijuana cigarette might contain 8 to 10% of THC. With concentrates, it’s upwards of 90% THC, he said.

Kids using marijuana vape concentrates are getting sick and having lung issues, Johnson said.

The federal and state governments track these illnesses, known as e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury, or (EVALI).

Vitamin E acetate, often used in THC vapes, is widely considered a safe dietary supplement, but it can cause chemical burns in the lungs.

It’s meant to be ingested through the stomach, not inhaled, Johnson said.

Changes in public policy are vital to reducing vaping among youth, McCoy said. When cities impose age restrictions and flavor bans, he said, use drops dramatically.

Starting April 27, 2021, the U.S. Postal Service will no longer mail vaping products. Other delivery companies are following suit, cutting off one avenue for teens to get them.

Melissa Markegard, tobacco prevention coordinator for Fargo Cass Public Health, displays a few of the vaping devices popular among teenagers in August 2019.  At the time, health officials in Wisconsin and Illinois announced hospitalizations of more than a dozen teens and young adults related to vaping. Derek Murray / WDAY
Melissa Markegard, tobacco prevention coordinator for Fargo Cass Public Health, displays a few of the vaping devices popular among teenagers in August 2019. At the time, health officials in Wisconsin and Illinois announced hospitalizations of more than a dozen teens and young adults related to vaping. Derek Murray / WDAY

How to 'Spot the Signs'

Signs that a child is using a vape can be hard to spot, even in plain sight.

Parents can look for:

-Unusual, unfamiliar items; vapes can look like highlighters, erasers, lipstick, makeup compacts

-New electronic items being plugged in or new chargers

-New, sweet fragrances you don’t recognize

Signs of nicotine withdrawal can include:

-Behavioral changes, including moods swings, agitation

-Poor performance in school, loss of interest in activities

-Abnormal coughing, throat clearing and shortness of breath

-Nausea and vomiting, possible signs of nicotine poisoning known as nic-sick

Fargo Cass Public Health has launched a vaping education campaign called Spot the Signs, aimed at parents and kids.

Parents can learn more about the signs of vape use and how kids conceal it.

Listen for things that might seem normal but aren’t, Markegard said. Kids may ask a friend to borrow a “book” and promise to return it after class.

“They’re not borrowing a book from anyone. They're borrowing a vape,” she said.

The campaign also challenges youth to spot signs of their own addiction, learning to understand their need for the product and what it means.

“We have students who have panic and anxiety when they forget their vape at home,” she said.

Information about the new Fargo Cass Public Health campaign can be found at spotthesigns.net and in social media ads and on billboards.

Another option is a new text-to-quit line for teens called My Life My Quit; a no pressure, no shame program that is entirely free.

“It's all about reaching them where they're at and helping them to be able to quit when they're ready,” McCoy said.