District welcomes e-cigarette ban

School district health staff say ban on flavored e-cigarettes could help curb ‘epidemic’ of teen use

Leslie Stunkard
Leslie Stunkard, the Minneapolis Public Schools’ licensed alcohol and drug counselor.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) health staff praised the Trump administration’s plans, announced Sept. 11, to ban flavored e-cigarettes but said they wish more would be done to reduce teen vaping.

Officials said they’re hopeful the planned ban, to be implemented in the coming weeks, could help discourage teens from vaping. They also said it can’t be the only approach to reducing the “epidemic” of youth e-cigarette use, noting potential actions such as banning the vaping devices outright.

“I’m grateful that they’re eliminating the flavored option, but I wish they’d do more,” said Leslie Stunkard, the district’s licensed alcohol and drug counselor.

E-cigarettes, battery-operated devices that are used to inhale aerosols typically containing flavorings and chemicals like nicotine, are the most commonly used form of tobacco among U.S. youth, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Preliminary data from this year shows that more than 1 in 4 U.S. high school students reported vaping in the previous 30 days, according to federal health officials. That’s up from about 1 in 5 in 2018 and way up from 2011. That year, fewer than 1 in 50 students reported vaping, though nearly 16% of teens reported smoking cigarettes.

Over two-thirds of high school e-cigarette users use flavored products.

Public health officials in recent years have called the increasing use of e-cigarettes a public health crisis. Concerns about their use increased this summer because of a lung illness associated with vaping that has sickened over 400 people and caused seven deaths, including one in Minnesota.

Many patients in those cases reported using black-market vaping products containing THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high, though no single product or substance has been conclusively linked to the disease.

Scientists say using e-cigarettes is less harmful than inhaling smoke from cigarettes, but they stress that they still contain nicotine, which can harm adolescent brain development and increase the risk of addiction to other drugs. They also say it’s difficult to know what other chemicals e-cigarettes contain and that some of those may be harmful.

In Minnesota, nearly 1 in 5 high school students reported using or trying e-cigarettes in the past 30 days in 2017, up 49% from 2014. Stunkard, who tracks smoking-related discipline in MPS, said there has been a 40% increase in usage over the past year.

Stunkard said the district tries not to suspend kids who are caught using e-cigarettes. She said the district will typically have a parent come and pick the student up so that he or she will miss the remainder of the day.

The district gave training on e-cigarettes in August to its middle and high school health teachers, according to Sarah Loch, who facilitates the K–12 health and physical education programming. She said health teachers begin addressing the topic of e-cigarettes as early as sixth grade.

Loch said there’s often a false perception among teenagers that e-cigarettes are safe if they can’t taste them or if they taste good. She said the hardest part about educating families is helping them understand what to look for with regard to the devices, because some look like everyday items, such as USB flash drives.

Stunkard said some teens have been told vaping is safe and noted that e-cigarette usage has caught on among teens in part because of competitions held by vaping companies. She also noted how the companies have offered college scholarships and that it’s possible to vape vitamin B.

“All these things are saying to the kids, ‘This is something that’s healthy for you,’” she said. “It’s subtle, but when you point it out to the kids, they’re like, ‘It’s so obvious.’”

Stunkard said she thinks the City of Minneapolis’ 2018 ordinance that raised the age for legally buying tobacco to 21 will help curb teen vaping. She said she teaches teens that tobacco companies dominate the e-cigarette market.

She and Amber Spaniol, the district’s director of nursing services, said they think parents should start talking to their kids about e-cigarettes as early as possible.