Tobacco and vaping use by Montana students, 2009-2019

The share of Montana high school students who say they have smoked cigarettes or used smokeless tobacco in the past 30 days has dropped by more than half since 2009, but electronic vaping has skyrocketed, with 30% vaping in the past month and nearly 9% vaping daily.

Vaping is on the rise among Bozeman students, and school officials are raising an alarm.

School officials told the Bozeman School Board on Monday night that they’re concerned because many kids don’t realize that vaping isn’t the “healthy” option it’s often advertised to be and can start them on a lifelong addiction to nicotine.

While its health consequences aren’t fully known, some 2,000 young people nationally have been sickened by vaping and 39 have died.

Superintendent Bob Connors called vaping’s growing popularity “scary,” and the answer is more education of Bozeman students and the community.

“It really hits home for me,” said Trustee Sandy Wilson. Her 17-year-old nephew was hospitalized for five days in intensive care in Salt Lake City this summer because of vaping. The jury is still out on the extent of his lung damage.

“My sister knew he was vaping, but she had seen the fake news reports (about its safety) and had no idea of the dangers,” Wilson said. “It’s frightening.”

Nationally and in Montana, the rate of teenagers smoking cigarettes has fallen dramatically, said Johanna Bertken, student assistance coordinator for the district. In 1976, 29% of adolescents were smoking. But today more than 27% are vaping.

Vaping devices are easily disguised as pens, inhalers, car fobs, a smart watch, even the strings on hoodies. Bertken said they’re targeted at the youth market, sold in flavors like strawberry jelly, cookies, mango and mint. The Juul company spent more than $104 million in the first eight months or 2019, she said, on advertising to create the image that vaping is part of a “cool, free, independent” lifestyle.

Advertisers often misrepresent vaping as “totally safe and healthy,” “organic” and “gluten free,” but in reality, Bertken said, “it’s very challenging to quit, and once you become addicted they have a lifelong customer.” Two-thirds of high school students don’t realize it contains nicotine, she said, which is highly addictive for teens. It can lead to depression, anxiety, attention problems, mood swings, she said. “The most dangerous thing is, the reality is we just don’t know the health impacts.”

The number of Bozeman students who say they’re vaping in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey has risen at an alarming rate, said Karin Neff, the school district’s data scientist.

Bozeman High Principal Dan Mills said vaping is already outlawed for anyone under 18 and banned by school rules. But disciplinary consequences aren’t going to solve an addiction problem.

Students in Bozeman High’s HOSA marketing club are looking into visiting middle schools to talk with younger students about the dangers of vaping, Mills said.

Students often make poor choices because they want to feel they belong, said Gordon Grissom, Sacajawea Middle School principal.

Judges are very concerned about vaping, said Mark VanSlyke, one of the Bozeman Police school resource officers. In January, police plan to speak to all freshmen about vaping. “I don’t try to scare them,” he said. “You feel for them because they’re addicted to these chemicals.”

Social media campaigns carry a lot of false information, Bertken said. Anyone who presents the dangers of vaping is often dismissed as a tool of cigarette companies. Even young people hospitalized because vaping, who have tried to warn other teens, are being targeted with a backlash of online bullying.

“It’s sobering, it’s depressing, it’s alarming,” said Trustee Douglas Fischer. He said he doesn’t think his kids or their friends are vaping, but after seeing how fast it has become popular, it makes him want to go home and talk with his kids.

Luke Terry, Bozeman High student secretary-treasurer, said he thinks there’s a lot of pushback among sophomores, who’ve been sharing stories about kids dying. “It’s not really seen as cool anymore,” he said.

“I hope you’re right,” said Board Chair Andy Willett.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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