Local school officials, health professionals and other groups are collaborating to organize a “community conversation” on youth vaping, its local impact and possible policy suggestions March 3 at Baraboo’s college campus.
Tara Noye, South Central Wisconsin Tobacco Free Coalition coordinator, will be among the panelists sharing her expertise from 7-9 p.m. With vaping products being so new, “there are a lot more questions than there are answers in the short term, so I think it’s something a lot of people are curious about,” she said.
“We’re trying to navigate how to best help our young people avoid nicotine addiction, especially before adulthood,” Noye said.
Led by the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County, the Baraboo Rotary and SSM Health St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, the event includes participants from various groups and agencies. Among the panelists will be Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm; Baraboo School District Administrator Lori Mueller and other school staff; state Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo; UW-Baraboo professor Dale Murray; and the Rev. Patrick Norris, priest ethicist with SSM Health.
According to UW-Baraboo spokesman John Christensen, staff from the offices of U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, both Democrats, will attend the event “to listen and learn.” The room on the lower level of the Umhoefer building can seat about 100.
UW-Baraboo Campus Dean Ed Janairo will facilitate the event.
“Like a lot of parents, I’ve been realizing just how pervasive vaping is becoming among teenagers,” Janairo said in a statement. “The campus is a resource for this community, so we’re glad to be able to host this important conversation and bring people together to learn more.”
Panelists are hoping for a large turnout, as well as collaboration between community members and policymakers to come up with ideas on how to address vaping, especially among youth.
School Resource Officer Amanda Sabol will display vape pens and other electronic smoking devices that she has confiscated from students at Jack Young Middle School. She said parents often don’t recognize them because they can resemble a USB flash drive or other electronic device.
“I would like to see parents and their children attending, just because I think that there is a lack of knowledge about how serious the vaping with teenagers in any area — not just our community — is,” Sabol said.
She said people might find it surprising that vaping is prevalent among middle school students. In a survey last year, 13% of JYMS students and 24% of Baraboo High School students reported that they had vaped within a month of taking the survey.
“I think the community doesn’t realize how young vaping is starting. We see a decrease in actual tobacco cigarettes being used or found, but a dramatic increase in the amount of vaping products, whether that be nicotine vaping or THC vaping,” Sabol said.
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Jen Lombardi, a Baraboo school social worker, said students don’t realize that one vape cartridge can have as much nicotine as an entire carton of cigarettes.
“A lot of kids will tell me how many cartridges they go through and that’s equivalent to multiple cartons of cigarettes,” Lombardi said, adding that they’re “appalled” to find out. “A lot of kids will tell me that smoking cigarettes is disgusting, but they don’t consider vaping smoking.”
It’s easier for teens to get vaping products than other forms of tobacco, Lombardi said, even with a law prohibiting sales to anyone under 21, because vaping products are widely available for purchase online by simply checking a box to say the buyer is over 21.
Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances a person can ingest, Noye said. Because youth’s brains continue to develop into their 20s, they learn to rely on nicotine when they vape or smoke.
“What we also see is that transfers to other substances as they age, so basically we’ve created neural pathways for addiction,” Noye said, “and that’s something that a child will have to struggle with for life and have to learn how to rewire their brain and coping mechanism. … I mean, it’s really going to set the tone for their brain health for the rest of their life.”
Current cigarette use — defined by smoking on at least one day within a month of taking the survey — among Wisconsin high school students peaked in 1999 at 38%, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. In 2001, 64% of high schoolers reported ever trying cigarettes. By 2017, current smokers dropped to just under 8%.
While local data on vaping is limited, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2017 that 42% of students nationwide had used an electronic vapor product at some point in their lives.
Overall current tobacco use, including both cigarettes and vaping products, among Wisconsin teens was at about 17% in 2017, according to the DPI.
Noye will inform attendees about what vaping is, its history and how it has “both intentionally and unintentionally been targeted at youth.” She plans to share some strategies the community could use to tackle the issue but said community members also should bring their own ideas to share with elected officials.
An outbreak of lung injuries associated with vaping use hospitalized more than 2,800 people and is linked to 68 deaths in the U.S. and its territories as of Feb. 18, but it has been declining since September, according to the CDC. While the agency didn’t rule out other potential causes, it reported that products containing THC played a “major role,” with Vitamin E acetate strongly linked to the outbreak.
Despite the publicity around the outbreak, Noye said most student focus groups she facilitated weren’t concerned about the health risks of vaping.
Sabol encouraged parents to contact law enforcement or their local schools if they have questions.
“There’s no dumb question when it comes to kids vaping, so I think if they want to reach out to me or to a school official, they can and they should and we’ll do the best we can to help them and inform them,” she said.
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Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.
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