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Tobacco in disguise

Erin Simmons of the American Lung Association points to some of the tobacco products you might find in a student’s backpack. She told teachers attending a professional development session Monday at the Lac qui Parle Valley High School how easy it is for students to hide their use of many tobacco products. (TRIBUNE/Tom Cherveny)1 / 2
This graph shows usage trends of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana by youths in Kandiyohi County. E-cigarette use was surveyed for the first time in 2014. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

MADISON — Erin Simmons has a good idea of who is buying the Gummy Bear-flavored e-juice and the Hello Kitty-themed e-cigarettes that turn the flavored, nicotine-laced juice into an aerosol to inhale.

You might too, by taking a look into your student’s backpack.

It’s where you might also find flavored snus the size of Trident gum sticks. Look for a flip-phone shaped container that appears like it’s meant to hold candy.

Or, check for grape and other flavored cigars that smell like Jolly Ranchers candies.

You may instead find toothpick-sized tobacco sticks, or gum drop-sized pads or orbs that dissolve in the mouth. Tobacco meant to dissolve in your mouth comes in containers that look like they would hold candy Tic Tacs.

Of course, you might find cigarettes in the backpack. They now come in lots of different packages too, including some small enough to fit in a young girl’s tiny purse.

These are just a sampling of the tobacco products available at convenience stores everywhere, warned Erin Simmons of the American Lung Association in Minnesota.

“The tobacco industry swears that they are not marketing to young people but they are certainly creating products that have an appeal to young people,’’ Simmons said.

She spoke Monday at the Lac qui Parle Valley High Schools in rural Madison, where the Minnesota River Valley Educational District hosted a professional development day. The day featured 100 different sessions for 450 teachers.

Simmons’ goal was to make teachers attending her session aware of the many different ways their students could be consuming tobacco products right under their noses.

In some cases, it’s happening between their toes. Simmons told the instructors about one girls’ basketball team that had been placing tiny packets of snus between their toes before games.

The moist, thin skin readily absorbs nicotine into the bloodstream.

But it is the sudden rise in the use of e-cigarettes by children that worries Simmons and others the most.

Five years ago it cost about $150 for an e-cigarette startup kit, and no one was especially worried that young people would buy them.

Today the cost of admission to a nicotine addiction with e-cigarettes starts at under $10. And the devices are easy to hide. One e-cigarette looks like a computer jump drive, and can be re-charged with a USB port, just like a cell phone.

There are now more than 7,000 flavors of e-juice to use in the devices. With only a few exceptions, the e-juices are laced with nicotine and all should be considered toxic for children. There have been cases of accidental poisonings when toddlers swallowed the candy-flavored liquids, Simmons said.

She had good news: Messages about the unhealthy consequences of smoking seem to be getting out. A 2014 survey of Minnesota high school students found that the use of traditional cigarettes had dropped, from 18.1 percent in 2011 to 10.6 percent last year.

Here’s the bad news: The survey also found that e-cigarette use is fast on the rise, with 12.9 percent of high school students responding to the 2014 survey saying they had tried e-cigarettes in the last 30 days.

“Even more concerning, the young people using this product are not the same people using regular cigarettes,’’ Simmons said. “They are not using both products, they are using one or the other so we’re not making progress in terms of overall decrease in use.’’

Simmons worries that rural youth may have easier access to tobacco products than their metropolitan counterparts, despite laws prohibiting the sale of any tobacco product to those under age 18. In rural communities, it is not unusual for the lone clerk in a convenience store to be a high school student. “(And) it’s really hard for one 16-year-old to tell another 16-year-old that they are not going to sell to them,’’ she said.

Just as worrisome is the perception among many young people that e-cigarettes are not as harmful as traditional cigarettes. The long-term health consequences of inhaling the aerosols generated by e-cigarettes are not known. There is no reason to believe that it is safe, Simmons said. “Everything we know about our lungs inhaling chemicals tells us it’s not,’’ she said.

Those inhaling e-cigarette aerosols are exposing their lungs to nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerin, flavorings and unknown substances. “There are absolutely no laws that pertain to the manufacturing of this product,’’ she said of e-juice. “There are more laws in place for making jelly and selling it at the farmers market that there are for this.’’

E-cigarette use grows in Kandiyohi Count

WILLMAR — E-cigarette usage by students in Kandiyohi County has the attention of the Kandiyohi County Drug Free Communities Coalition.

“We are currently seeing an alarming number of Kandiyohi County teens (8.4 percent) who are reporting the use of e-cigarettes,’’ stated Laura Daak, the coalition’s coordinator, in an e-mail. “Of those 8.4 percent, nearly 25 percent used e-cigarettes more than five times in the last month.’’

The growing popularity of e-cigarettes raises the concerns that they could become the preferred method of abusing synthetic drugs, warns Daak. “Their tech appeal, size, ability to be accessorized, ability to be concealed, and the wide variety of both legal and illegal products a single device can vaporize,’’ she noted.

Alcohol use by youth in the county has declined by 15 percent over the last six years, and tobacco use by 8 percent.

Marijuana use has not significantly changed. The coalition is worried that both marijuana and e-cigarette usage have the potential to explode in the coming years, she explained.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335