While COVID-19 dominates health news, local students continue battling a pre-pandemic epidemic, vaping, with peer-to-peer encouragement and personal stories.

Members of the Northwestern Middle School FACT group challenged their peers to take the pledge to not use tobacco or e-cigarette products Friday, Nov. 12. Even staff members took part in the #ditchthevape event. Chad Gradine, a paraeducator, was among the 46 people to sign a pledge during the sixth grade lunch period. He said he did it “to stay healthy.”

A pledge form sits on a table in the Northwestern Middle School cafeteria Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram
A pledge form sits on a table in the Northwestern Middle School cafeteria Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

“What we see reflected in the data is that students don’t start smoking and then go to vaping anymore. They start vaping and then they go to smoking,” said Charmaine Swan, coordinator of the Northwest Lung Heath Alliance, which covers six Northwestern Wisconsin counties.

The third try was the charm for the NMS students, according to Counselor Erika Kaufman, co-adviser of the FACT group. They received a state grant to to put up a #ditchthevape billboard along U.S. Highway 2 and print T-shirts in spring 2020, but COVID-19 shut down in-person school before they could get pledges.

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“We tried again last fall after our health classes did their drug and alcohol unit, but again we went online. So here we are finally finishing off the project,” Kaufman said.

A Superior initiative that was launched last year is also gaining national notice. On Nov. 8 Superior High School sophomore Alayna Degraef was recognized by the Superior School Board for her work on a short film encouraging students not to vape. The film, “As an Asthmatic,” is a finalist for the My Hero WOJ Youth Reporter award in the High School Creative category. It shares the story of a teen drawn into nicotine addiction and how it affected her.

“When it comes to youth, we really are relying on the youth telling their personal story" because young people are more likely to accept the anti-vaping message from peers, Swan said.

At a time when depression and anxiety among young people has increased due to the pandemic, the anti-vaping message is especially important.

“They’re finding that mental health is very much related to vaping,” Kaufman said.

A 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that current e-cigarette users have double the odds of having a diagnosis of depression than people who have never vaped.

Vaping stats

Since 2014, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among young people nationwide. In December 2018, then Surgeon General Jerome Adams declared the use of e-cigarettes by young people an epidemic.

More than 2 million young people currently use e-cigarettes, according to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey. Of them, 1 in 4 use e-cigarettes daily, and 85% of them use flavored e-cigarettes. Disposables were the most commonly used e-cigarette device.

Superior Middle School eighth grader Veronica Acurero, left, and Superior High School sophomore Alayna Degraef, right, receive Spartan Showcase awards from Superior School District Administrator Amy Starzecki during the Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, school board meeting. 
Contributed / Pat McKone
Superior Middle School eighth grader Veronica Acurero, left, and Superior High School sophomore Alayna Degraef, right, receive Spartan Showcase awards from Superior School District Administrator Amy Starzecki during the Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, school board meeting. Contributed / Pat McKone

According to the 2020 Monitoring the Future survey, funded by National Institutes of Health, 16.6% of eighth graders, 30.7% of 10th graders and 34.5% of high school seniors reported vaping nicotine in the past 12 months.

Four out of 5 kids who’ve used tobacco tried a flavored product first, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Laws

The federal minimum age for purchasing tobacco products is 21. Congress passed the Tobacco 21 legislation in December 2019. The federal law does not preclude state, local, tribal or territorial governments from passing a law that is more restrictive. Wisconsin, however, does preempt, or prevent, local communities from passing laws that are more stringent or differ from the state's tobacco control policies related to licensure and youth access.

Northwestern Middle School seventh graders Jeffrey Carswell, from left, Simon Schmidt and Sophie Navarro gather the 46 pledge sheets that were signed during sixth-grade lunch Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. Each sheet was a pledge to remain tobacco and e-cigarette free. 
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram
Northwestern Middle School seventh graders Jeffrey Carswell, from left, Simon Schmidt and Sophie Navarro gather the 46 pledge sheets that were signed during sixth-grade lunch Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. Each sheet was a pledge to remain tobacco and e-cigarette free. Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

Resources

  • This is Quitting, truthinitiative.org/thisisquitting, is a program to help young people quit vaping. Teens and young adults can join for free by texting DITCHVAPE to 88709.

  • The Wisconsin Tobacco Quit Line is a free service to help people quit smoking, vaping or other tobacco use. Free to Wisconsin residents age 13 and older. Call 800-QUIT-NOW, text READY to 200-400 or visit quitline.wisc.edu.

  • Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization, offers information on youth vaping.

  • Wisconsin Department of Health Services provides a page on Tobacco.