HIBBING — The Hibbing Chemical Health Coalition hosted a free community presentation last week to discuss the wide range of tobacco use and how the increased popularity of vaping affects the physical and mental health of youth.

The event mirrored a mental health and substance use series that took place in the Virginia and Eveleth area last year. After a brief introduction from retired educator and HCHC member, Lori Kolden, Amanda Casady from the American Lung Association in Duluth took to the Lincoln Elementary School stage before an audience of a dozen or so community members regarding the trends and effects of vaping and tobacco use.

“Tobacco is still the No. 1 preventable cause of death and disease in this country,” Casady said, noting that while adult tobacco usage has declined over the years, northeast Minnesota maintains the highest usage rates in the state. And as for e-cigarettes use — also known as vaping — that’s another story entirely.

Teen vaping rates across the Iron Range

Data from the 2019 Minnesota Department of Education’s Student Survey shows that zero percent of all 11th grade students at Hibbing High School reported drinking alcohol daily. However, 13 percent of females and 5 percent of males reported drinking alcohol on a monthly basis. Meanwhile, 5 percent of females and 3 percent of male reported using marijuana — pot, hash or hash oil — on a daily basis, according to the student survey.

The student survey also shows that 21 percent of 11th grade female students at HHS and 13 percent of male students self-reported using vaping devices or e-cigarettes on a daily basis. Such figures largely overshadow the zero percent of females and 3 percent of males reporting the daily use of tobacco whether cigarettes or chew.

“As we suspected, in 2019 the next round of Minnesota Student Survey data was done and more than one in three Hibbing 11th graders were using tobacco products, so that did increase quite a bit,” Casady told attendees.

For 2019, the local numbers regarding vaping use in the previous 30 days of the survey increased to 36 percent (up from 15 percent), “so it more than doubled in just three years here in Hibbing.” In Chisholm High School where a little more than half the students took the survey, vaping usage was reported at 65 percent for juniors, and in Virginia it was at 50 percent, Casady said, adding, “Not all of these students are using it every single day, but 10 percent are.”

So, where are the students obtaining tobacco products?

Casady said some are flying under the radar and purchasing tobacco products underage at convenience stores, “but most students are getting it from their friends.” Those friends being students who are 18 years old who are buying tobacco products legally and are selling it younger students, she said. “That data was not surprising to us at all.”

‘Everywhere, at all times’

During the presentation, Casady shared images of the many types of vaping devices — some of which look like pens or are disguised as cell phones or the chords in hooded sweatshirts — and how students are charging their devices in front of teachers and parents undetected. She also shared YouTube videos of adolescents testing out different types of vaping juice with flavors like fruity pebbles doughnut. In fact, there are more than 15,500 flavors of vape juice, and while brands like JUUL market a single vaping pod as being equal to one pack of cigarettes as far as nicotine goes, independent studies show that pods double that amount and also contain heavy metals, particulates and “cancer-causing agents that put other adults and children at risk.” People have also been reported to get addicted within one to two weeks, with addicted students using, on average, one pod a day. Some severe cases showing kids using as many as four pods a day — equivalent to upwards of eight packs of cigarettes, a level Casady described as an “unprecedented level” of addiction.

“The count is rising across the country and here in our own state people are having severe lung illness from these devices,” she said, pointing out that there are over 500 cases of several lung illnesses nationwide plus nine confirmed deaths, including one in Minnesota.

As of Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that there were at least 15 vaping-related deaths across the nation and more than 800 cases of lung illness reported.

Though many unknowns remain with no confirmed common denominator across every case of lung illness, experts are beginning to discover links between elicit THC being used in vaping devices, Casady said. The American Lung Association has even been hearing increased reports of educators throughout the region who are seeing side effects of tobacco use right in the school. “They’re fidgety and can’t get through an entire class period without needing to get a hit of their nicotine and so they’re leaving the classroom all the time, disrupting class,” she said.

She said principals are spending several hours a day addressing vaping issues in the school setting because students are vaping “everywhere, at all times.”

Casady ended her portion of the presentation by highlighting how a policy called “Tobacco 21” is being implemented in places across the state and country. The ordinance, when passed, raises the legal sales age from 18 to 21. Something she said is vital in prevention as “95 percent of addicted adults start before age 21.” It is also supported by every branch of the armed services, which strives for a tobacco-free military.

Currently, the Hibbing City Council is considering the policy.

A new means of coping

Ann Hauser, a respiratory therapist at Fairview Range, spoke about the health effects of using tobacco products. She cited that more than 20 million Americans have died due to tobacco use since 1964 when the Surgeon General first reported a warning on the dangers, with 2.5 million of those deaths being non-smokers and 100,000 being babies. Today, roughly 5.6 million Americans under age 18 are projected to die prematurely from smoking related diseases.

“That might go up with the increase use of vaping” Hauser warned.

The discussion continued and wound into the mental health arena. Casady referred to data around nicotine and addictions as “really bad,” as most people with multiple addictions, like alcoholism, will die from tobacco use.

“We do see a lot more depression and anxiety among kids and we do hear from kids that say they’re using [vaping] as a way to cope,” Casady said. “So it’s addressing that mental illness at a younger age, too, and setting them up with what are healthy coping techniques and methods beyond using nicotine, because that’s just making it worse.”

The number one way, she insisted throughout, is to teach kids from an early age that any tobacco use — including vaping — is dangerous.

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