SPEARFISH — The state Department of Health reported two cases of vaping-related illness among residents, and Northern Hills high school principals and staff members are trying hard to educate their students about the dangers of e-cigarettes.
The two South Dakotans who are experiencing the illnesses are 20-24 years old.
“I felt like last November through February, it was rampant everywhere,” said Dr. Dan Leikvold, superintendent of the Lead-Deadwood School District.
The district brought in experts to discuss the dangers of vaping, and the use of the devices declined somewhat.
“A lot of it, for us, in the last year, has been reactive rather than proactive. It’s such a huge outbreak,” Leikvold said.
Pete Wilson, principal of Sturgis Brown High School, said the use of the devices are widely used by high schoolers — even inside the halls of the school.
“It’s high like every other school with the kids,” Wilson said of the use of e-cigarettes. “I believe it’s an epidemic that we’re in, just like cigarettes were back in the day. We do our darnedest to combat it at the high school, middle school, and all levels.”
Generically known as e-cigarettes, the vaping pens and similar devices are legal for adults, some of whom say their use has helped them quit smoking. Users inhale from the devices which heat liquid gels into an aerosol containing nicotine and flavored compounds.
Buying, possessing, or using vaping devices or gels is illegal for people under 18 in South Dakota and most states.
Leikvold said he and his staff really noticed the wide-spread use at the onset of the 2018-2019 school year. Since then, he sees teens up to five times a week using the devices, both in school and in the community.
So far this year, no vaping devices have been confiscated, but there were last year.
Wilson said nearly 20 units have been seized by Sturgis staff this year – 11 days nto the school year. More than 50 were confiscated last school year.
“I think a lot of them do it, but it is extremely difficult to catch,” Wilson said.
The devices vary dramatically in size and look. Some emit vapor while others, such as juuls, are nearly vapor-free.
“They try to catch it,” Wilson said of the teachers. “We’ve not caught a lot in classes because the kids are good at it. The teacher turns their back, and it takes less than a blink of the eye that they can take a puff off of it.”
“Its not uncommon for a kid to put it on the kitchen table and mom and dad don’t have a clue what it is because it looks just like a USB flash drive you put in your computer,” he added.
Largely gone are the days of “smoking in the boys’ room,” but now, vaping use is high in the bathrooms.
“I know that is where it happens a lot. I just haven’t gone there to put someone in the bathroom. That’s just a little too much invasion of privacy,” Wilson said.
“If we caught two or three (students with) chewing tobacco last year I’d be surprised,” he added. The same is true for cigarettes.
“I don’t even remember the last time we wrote a kid up for Marlboros or Copenhagen,” Leikvold said.
Steve Morford, principal at Spearfish High School, said he does not see the use of e-cigarettes “running rampant,” in the schools, and said the use outside of school is worse than inside of school during the school day and hours.
But he cautioned people that their use, “is extremely addictive and not a safe substitute for any tobacco products.”
The use of e-cigarettes by those not yet 18 years old, holds ramifications — both legal and in the schools.
Policies differ among districts for exact punishment, but all hold students accountable for use in schools. That means in-school suspension on the first offense, and for those in activities - academic and athletic — a suspension from participation.
For those in activities, use of e-cigarettes or any illegal substances does not only have to be at school to receive the punishment. Should a school official see a student vaping, for example, in the community, the punishment still applies.
With subsequent violations, the punishment gets more severe. For the third violation in the Spearfish School District, students are permanently banned from participating in extra-curricular activity, including athletics or fine arts, for the remainder of his/her high school career, Morford said.
“What we need is parents’ help,” Leikvold said. “We need parents to recognize that it is … not a safe alternative to organic tobacco. Don’t let your kid do it. And when we hold their kid accountable for doing it, support us.”
With the two cases now reported in the state, South Dakota joins 33 states who have reported cases of severe respiratory illness from e-cigarettes.
Patients typically experienced respiratory symptoms, such as cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain, and may also experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, or fatigue.
“We will work with patients and healthcare providers to collect information to inform the national outbreak investigation and help CDC identify the cause of these illnesses,” said Dr. Joshua Clayton, state epidemiologist.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends individuals consider not using e-cigarette products while the investigation is ongoing. People who do use e-cigarette products should monitor themselves for symptoms and promptly seek medical attention for any health concerns.
Regardless of the ongoing investigation, people who use e-cigarette products should not buy these products off the street and should not modify e-cigarette products or add any substances that are not intended by the manufacturer, such as illicit THC products. E-cigarette products should never be used by youth, young adults, pregnant women, or adults who do not currently use tobacco products.
The South Dakota QuitLine offers free coaching to quit tobacco and vaping product use. South Dakotans can enroll in the program by calling 1-866-SD QUITS or by visiting SDQuitLine.com.
To learn more about the national investigation, visit CDC’s website.
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