The White House called for the ban of flavored e-cigarettes this week in the midst of a national vaping-related outbreak. More than 450 possible cases of lung illness have been associated with the practice, including 35 in Wisconsin.

Of particular concern is the number of young people who are taking a puff. During 2017-18, e-cigarette use skyrocketed among youth, causing the Surgeon General to label it an epidemic. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data showed 1 in 5 high school students and one-fifth of middle school students were current users in 2018, meaning they had used an e-cigarette within the past month.

The numbers have jumped again. More than a quarter of high school kids used e-cigarettes in 2019, according to preliminary numbers from the HHS. The majority said they used fruit, menthol or mint flavors.

Although they are marketed in kid-friendly flavors, e-cigarettes can contain nicotine, cancer-causing chemicals, heavy metals, ultrafine particles and flavorings that have been linked to lung disease. With new designs that mimic USB drives and other everyday items, vaping devices can hide in plain sight.

A man vapes outside of a residence in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
A man vapes outside of a residence in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Local efforts are underway to curb underage vaping.

Superior High School had 84 violations of the district’s nicotine policy during the 2018-2019 school year, half of them during the first three months, according to school social worker Jane Larson. The majority were for vaping.

The school responded by offering a new option to first-time offenders, education.

“It is not a cessation program. It’s not like ‘Let’s quit,’” Larson said. “It’s about ‘Let’s give you some information.’”

Instead of a suspension and a ticket, students can attend four sessions of the American Lung Association’s INDEPTH program with Larson. It informs students about the effects of nicotine and helps them process the choices they are making. It is, she said, an attempt to tip the scales in favor of them making healthy changes.

“The hope is to educate the kids, to try and keep them safe,” SHS Principal Rick Flaherty said. “We can issue tickets and we can send them home from school, but that’s not helping them academically, it’s not helping them to change that behavior, so we’re trying to educate.”

A woman vapes outside of a Superior residence recently. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
A woman vapes outside of a Superior residence recently. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Larson said the school does offer a separate cessation program for students who want to continue after their four sessions are done.

“Also, students can self-refer if they wish,” she said.

SHS seniors took a stand against vaping last school year, as well. A team of DECA (an association of marketing students) members held educational sessions on the dangers of vaping for students at Superior Middle School, part of a “Don’t Blow It” campaign that propelled them to international competition.

Has the education paid off? Flaherty said no nicotine referrals were made during the first week of school at SHS, although staff saw what appeared to be vaping in cars exiting the school parking lot.

This week, Assistant Principal Bill Punkyo said he had dealt with two vaping incidents so far this school year. Both were given the education option.

There have been a few instances of vaping at Northwestern High School in the past few years, according to Associate Principal Brian Smith, but not many.

“We hear rumors from time to time and will investigate if needed, but have not turned up much,” he said.

Maple School District policy treats vaping the same as smoking or chewing tobacco. If a student is caught using or possessing e-cigarettes, vapes, implements or products, the students is suspended out of school for three days. They do not currently have the option of an educational course.