For nearly seven years, Fargo Cass Public Health Tobacco Prevention Educator Melissa Markegard has been talking about the dangerous effects of vaping, the products for which used to be called e-cigs when she first began educating kids, administrators and parents.
Today vapes come in a wide variety of devices that resemble commonplace items like flash drives, watches, and pens and boast catchy flavors like berry lemon bubblegum and aloe grape.
More alarming than the evolution of the products and names associated with vaping is the fact that younger and younger kids are becoming addicted to nicotine, thanks to vaping.
“Vapes are not safer than cigarettes,” Markegard emphasized, noting that kids in local elementary schools have been caught with vape devices.
Now with summer upon us, kids will have more opportunities to experiment with a dangerous product that could have long-term health effects.
What parents need to know
In 2019, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory warning about the rising use of electronic cigarettes among youth. These products have been available since 2007 and deliver nicotine and other additives through an inhaled aerosol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data from 2019 showed e-cigarette use had increased 78% among high school students and that in 2918, 1 in 20 middle school students were currently using them.
Closer to home, the percentage of 11th graders in Clay County who use vapes every day was as high as 43% and in North Dakota, more than 12% of high schoolers reported using them frequently.
"Be on the lookout and keep communication open. Parents need to educate themselves and talk to kids about making their health a priority. No parents want to see their kids doing something that could truly harm them.”
- Melissa Markegard
And vaping is not harmless. Nicotine is an addictive drug, and using nicotine during adolescence can adversely affect the areas of the brain that manage learning, memory and attention. The nicotine content of these devices is extremely high, Markegard said, and is salt-based, which means it is more easily absorbed into the body and addiction happens faster than with traditional cigarettes. Plus, inhaling the aerosol exposes the lungs to harmful substances, according to the CDC.
“Parents can be educating kids on the dangers of nicotine, and don’t take the approach that it’s just a vape,” Markegard said. “It’s not just a vape.”
And the fun, fruit flavors prevalent throughout the vaping industry are specifically targeting kids, not adults, she explained. That’s why in January 2020, the Federal Drug Administration issued a ban on unauthorized flavored cartridge products designed to appeal to children; however, companies like Juul have been able to sidestep the ban by instead producing disposal products that can offer the user anywhere from 500 to 2,500 puffs per device. These inexpensive items -- often around $10 -- also use names or logos that are similar to energy drinks, like Bad Bull and Bang, to appeal to kids.
“Of course the tobacco and vaping industry know kids are drinking energy drinks so that’s why they name (their products) that,” Markegard said.
Because vaping is still a relatively new epidemic, research showing long-term health effects of using the products is scant; what is known is that nicotine use at such a young age will be harmful and often leads to other drug use. Markegard explained that she often hears from students who have been caught using vapes share that they’ve had to quit sports because they’ve noticed diminished lung capacity.
“I think we are going to see new lung diseases we haven’t seen before and won’t know how to treat because of vaping,” she said.
In 2019, at least 14 teens and young adults were hospitalized in Wisconsin and Illinois with severe problems linked to vaping. Some patients experienced chest pain and fatigue and some were treated with a ventilator; medical professionals were unable to determine if the lung damage was permanent. One year ago, the Minnesota Department of Health issued an alert to health care workers across the state about cases of severe lung injuries associated with vaping, all of which required hospitalizations and some required ventilators.
What parents can do
The rapid increase of vaping among youth has led Fargo Cass Public Health to implement a “Spot the Signs” campaign targeted toward parents.
“Be on the lookout and keep communication open,” Markegard said. “Parents need to educate themselves and talk to kids about making their health a priority. No parents want to see their kids doing something that could truly harm them.”
Some of the signs moms and dads can be watching for include:
Behavioral changes, especially increased anxiety or irritability
Unfamiliar items that look like common items (think pens, compacts, flash drives or even watches)
New electronics being charged or plugged in
Poor academic performance or loss of interest in hobbies and activities
Unusual coughing, throat clearing or shortness of breath
Frequent headaches or nausea
Unfamiliar fragrances, especially on clothes or behind closed doors
Additionally, listen for conversations that revolve around borrowing items from friends, such as a “nic”. “If you don’t know what that means, maybe you should ask what they are talking about,” Markegard encouraged. Kids might also be asking about items such as pens or books that can be borrowed from one another. “They are saying, ‘I want to borrow your vape,’ ” she said. “They’re trying to figure out how to get their next hit.”
Vape devices are sold around the metro area but the pass rate for local retailers is very good, Markegard said. That forces kids to purchase devices from their friends, often through social media, or online where security measures supposedly in place to deter illegal purchasing are easily manipulated. Another effort to stem the flow of vape products came in April when the U.S. Postal Service announced it would no longer mail vaping products; other delivery companies quickly followed suit.
For more information on the campaign, visit spotthesigns.net. Additional resources are available on the CDC’s website under Tobacco > Basic Information > e-cigarettes.
Finally, another option is a free text-to-quit line for teens called My Life My Quit. Just text “Start My Quit” to 36072 to get started.