How Minnesota Schools are Doubling Down on Anti-vaping Efforts

Erin Hinrichs, MinnPost: December 2, 2019

As teen vaping rates continue to rise, Minnesota educators are monitoring their classrooms and hallways for well-disguised vaping devices.

Some are shaped like USB flash drives that students can charge by plugging them in to their laptop. Others double as pens and highlighters. Some are even less conspicuous: shaped like a smart watch, an ID badge attachment and even a replacement hoodie string.

What started out as a fad marketed to youth as a safer, healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes has ballooned into a health epidemic that public health officials and politicians are scrambling to rein in. As of Nov. 20, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 2,290 injuries and 47 deaths have been reported as a result of using e-cigarette or vaping products. Teens and young adults make up the bulk of those vaping-related hospitalizations resulting from serious lung damage, says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.

“I just want to emphasize how serious this is,” she told education reporters during a recent webinar hosted by the Education Writers Association. “When we think about smoking, we know it’s dangerous 20, 30, 40 years down the road. The fact that we already have so many kids hospitalized from vaping is just an unprecedented kind of epidemic.”

Armed with this new health information, administrators and educators at many metro area schools are doubling down on their anti-vaping efforts. While the bulk of their focus remains on getting information to students and parents, many are expanding the scope of their educational outreach and shifting from a punitive disciplinary approach to one that takes a more holistic approach.


A less punitive approach

Likewise, in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, health staff are looking at ways to build out a more holistic approach to dealing with vaping in schools — a less punitive approach that’s better fit to address any related mental health issues.

Deb Mehr, the district’s health services coordinator, says the district recently received a grant from the county that will be used to accomplish two key things: add vaping information to the curriculum and support diversion efforts that keeps kids in school and connect them with resources to make healthier decisions.

Addressing misperceptions about the health risks associated with vaping, she says, are paramount. And it’s hard to have engaging conversations with youth when they’re too fearful of disciplinary action to seek information or help.

Her sense of urgency around addressing vaping is spurred by two recent seizure episodes at two different school sites — once this year and once last year. In other instances, she’s found students who’ve been vaping experience very high blood pressure and pulse rates.

“I think part of the problem is kids don’t know what they’re vaping,” she said.

Health officials have linked recent vaping-related lung injuries to THC and vitamin E oil, mostly found in illegal vaping products. But even legal ingredients — like nicotine and formaldehyde — are “potential carcinogens and very toxic” says Zuckerman. And manufacturers aren’t required to list all of the ingredients, since they’re considered trade secrets.

Along these lines, teaching students to be more critical consumers is key to keeping them safe, says Leslie Stunkard, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor in the Minneapolis Public Schools district.

With more than 70 schools districtwide, she says the push from her team has really been to teach students, especially the older ones, to be “skeptical about the advertising they hear.” She likes to point out how these companies are trying to market themselves as a good thing — by offering scholarships and even selling vitamins.

Offering another example of how educators in her district are getting students to think more critically about vaping, she says a science teacher at Washburn High School has created a lesson on vaping that explains the how even the name “vaping” is deceiving.

“I think one of the things that slowed us down a bit is the staff are learning — just as we and the students are learning — just how dangerous it is,” she said.

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