With recent concerns about vaping, e-cigarette and tobacco usage, Horizon Public Health has been working to increase its outreach to students and staff at local schools and changes are being made.

Alexandria Public School district put a new policy in place regarding vaping, with the first class on vaping education held two weeks ago. Students who are caught vaping in school must attend a two-session class on tobacco and e-cigarette education taught by Katie Strickler of Horizon and a school resource officer.

The program is not a cessation program, it’s just meant to get students to think about their use of these substances, Strickler said. Students are pulled out of their normal class schedule to attend.

When students choose to use tobacco or e-cigarettes, education is an important factor, but the environment that surrounds students is also important, she said. An environment that includes school policies that discourage the use of vaping makes it easier for students to not use these substances.

Continuing the conversations

Strickler and Maggie Johnson are health educators from Horizon who work with area schools. Strickler covers Alexandria Public Schools and is the Healthy Voices Healthy Choices coalition coordinator at the high school. Johnson is the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership coordinator and covers all five of Horizon’s counties: Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens and Traverse.

Strickler used presentations for district staff and teachers to show examples of how students may buy inconspicuous products such as a hoodie, watch or highlighter-shaped device that actually allow the user to vape.

The coalition made a presentation to students and parents at Discovery Middle School’s back-to-school night, covering the language associated with vaping and its negative health effects. A Bark’n Pig Smokehouse BBQ food truck was on site, so students and parents were invited to get a free meal afterwards and continue the discussion.

“They were able to sit down and have a conversation about what they had just learned,” Strickler said. “That was really neat and an outcome that we hadn’t really thought of initially.”

The same information was presented to parents and students as well at the Alexandria Area High School parent-teacher conferences.

Johnson, who is also the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership coordinator, has been visiting school staff in numerous locations, discussing the vaping epidemic in general and products associated with vaping, tobacco and e-cigarette usage.

“A lot of these teachers aren’t even aware of what the products look like, so we’re bringing in products to show them first-hand so that they know if they see them,” Johnson said.

Staff members have relationships with students, she said, and they can share the information they learned with students. She said her presentations also give administrators the opportunity to work with staff to change discipline policies on tobacco usage for students and better protect them from becoming addicted to nicotine.

Students aren’t always aware of the harmful effects of using tobacco and e-cigarettes, Johnson said.

Nicotine is an addictive substance that can cause health effects, and it isn’t the only substance in these products, she said. Formaldehyde and acetone can also be found in tobacco and e-cigarette products.

She said it’s extremely important that students are educated now. “We don’t know what the long-term consequences are going to be,” Johnson said. “If you never start, you don’t have to stop.”

Osakis Superintendent Randy Bergquist called Johnson’s presentation prior to the start of the school year an eye-opening experience. “I think a number of our staff members were amazed at how much is going on across the United States,” he said.

Osakis district staff, including Bergquist, presented some of that information to parents at recent parent-teacher conferences.

He was surprised to learn there are thousands of vaping flavors and some vaping devices look like candy or juice boxes. “You can’t tell me that they’re not marketing towards little kids,” he said. “I’m very concerned about the rise of this.”

Amy Reineke, community health strategist for Horizon Public Health, said the organization is planning to release mass media communication to parents and community members about the dangers of vaping and what these products look like. She said the strong partnerships with local schools were a great asset in educating students.

“We in public health can’t do this alone, so this is a great time for us to gather as a community to educate everybody at all levels.”