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E-cigarette 'epidemic' hits Bismarck schools

School resource officer Preston McKay shows a variety of electronic cigarette devices confiscated at Century High School. The most common one McKay sees are Juul e-cigarettes, which resemble a computer flash drive. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK -- E-cigarette use among youth is rising nationally, including in Bismarck Public Schools.

From Aug. 23, the first day of classes, to Oct. 11, Bismarck school resource officers handed out 66 tobacco citations to students — 45 of which were for e-cigarette use. In comparison, last year, officers gave 35 citations to students for using e-cigarettes.

The Food and Drug Administration said e-cigarette use among youth has reached "epidemic proportions." In Bismarck, SROs and school administrators say it has become more prevalent in the past year.

Preston McKay, the SRO at Century High School, said the school's parking lot is filled with small disposable "pods," which contain liquid nicotine.

"Is it a problem? Yeah, it really is," McKay said.

In an effort to inform parents on e-cigarette use with youth, the school district is hosting a series of informational sessions this month. Jordyn Schaefbauer, a tobacco prevention specialist with Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health, will discuss harmful chemicals that have been found in e-cigarettes and show pictures of the latest products.

Marketed as an alternative to smoking, e-cigarettes devices come in various sizes and shapes. Liquids for the devices come in different flavors, including fruit and other sweet flavors, which anti-smoking groups have criticized as targeting youth.

Juul e-cigarettes are the most popular devices in Bismarck high schools. They resemble a flash drive, often going unnoticed by unsuspecting parents and teachers.

In 2017, 20.6 percent of high school students in North Dakota reported using electronic vaping devices, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The national rate was 13.2 percent.

"With the high use of the Juul e-cigarette, it's definitely concerning," Schaefbauer said, adding that one Juul pod has the same amount of nicotine in a pack of cigarettes.

In September, the FDA announced it was increasing enforcement actions against e-cigarette companies and retailers who market or sell to kids.

"The developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to nicotine addiction," the agency said in a news release on the actions.

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