Moab-area school and health officials are raising the alarm about the popularity of vaping among young people, as vaping-related illnesses rise across the country.
“Vaping is a huge concern in our schools,” said Stephen Hren, principal at Grand County High School. “The prevalence of vaping has increased exponentially since last year, and in light of what’s been happening nationally, in terms of deaths and irreparable lung damage, it needs to be addressed.”
The Grand County School District released a statement last week reporting that multiple vaping devices have been discovered at Grand County High School. Some of these devices tested positive for methamphetamine.
“We test all the vapes that we confiscate,” Hren said. The principal said that students’ vaping devices had tested positive for THC and nicotine in the past, but this is the first time that methamphetamine has been detected.
Vaping or “e-cigarette” devices work by heating a cartridge of liquid to create vapor that users inhale into their lungs. While cartridges generally contain nicotine and additional flavors, vaping devices can also be used to convey illicit and potentially dangerous substances like THC, methamphetamine and fentanyl.
“Law enforcement is in play and moving forward,” Hren said, “but really this is an opportunity for open dialog on how dangerous vaping can be.”
The use of these devices has been linked to a string of patients with severe lung illnesses in multiple states, an outbreak currently under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and state and local health departments.
As of Monday, Oct. 7, the Utah Department of Health (UDH) reported 76 cases of vaping-related lung disease. An additional 14 potential cases are being investigated. Nationwide, the CDC reports 1,080 cases of lung injury, with eighteen deaths confirmed.
Medical professionals have not been able to pin down the exact cause of the illness, which causes coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, nausea and vomiting.
However, the UDH reports that evidence points to unregulated THC-containing cartridges as the likely cause of the outbreak. The majority of patients in Utah reported getting THC-containing cartridges from friends on through unregulated online sources, increasing the difficulty of narrowing down just what product or ingredient is causing people to fall ill.
The CDC guidance on the devices warns “it is difficult to know what substances the products contain and the potential for harm.”
On Oct. 2, the Utah Department of Health announced a new emergency rule requiring all tobacco retailers that sell e-cigarette products to post notices regarding the dangers of vaping “unregulated THC products.” The rule also restricts the sale of flavored e-cigarette products.
Enforcement of the rule begins October 21.
Southeast Utah Health Department officials were in Moab, raising awareness of the new rule with tobacco sellers.
“These are unregulated products,” said Debbie Marvidikas, Southeast Utah Health Department’s health promotion director. She emphasized that vaping devices have never been proven safe for consumption, and long-term effects are totally unknown.
“What’s alarming is that we see high schoolers turning to vaping who would never consider smoking. There’s an incorrect idea that it’s a safer alternative to cigarettes,” she said.
As of summer 2018, those under 30 were less likely than older Americans to believe vaping is harmful to one’s health, according to a Gallup poll.
Grand County High School includes a discussion of vaping in its health curriculum and, after the discovery of vaping devices containing meth, held an assembly for students to learn more about the dangers.
“But we’re really hoping to start programs reaching younger students before they even try vaping,” Hren said. He says that he’s heard a lot of uncertainty and misinformation from both students and parents.
“I’d like an open dialog with parents and students. Parents should feel comfortable coming to us for more information,” Hren said.
“I don’t think that kids understand what they’re smoking,” Marvidikas said, agreeing that raising awareness of the risks is crucial to ensuring public health.
“How can they learn about the dangers when their parents don’t even know?”
The Grand County School District administers a Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey to all students in the district in order to better understand the risk factors and attitudes in the student body. The survey deals with rates of substance use, antisocial behavior, sources and places of alcohol acquisition, and risk factors that can contribute to drug abuse.
The most recent survey results point to a higher rate of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use among Grand County students compared to the statewide average.
“It is incredibly concerning to see some of the trends and where Grand County ranks in relation to the State,” said Moab Regional Hospital Executive Director Jennifer Sadoff in an email.
“There are many challenges to overcome,” Sadoff said.
While Hren continues to pursue students vaping on campus, he said that to address the problem, the district is looking beyond simple punishment. The principal points to the importance of intervening in student’s lives when substance abuse may be an issue.
“At the school, we have site-based therapists now. Now in addition to suspension or other punishments, we can have our students work with a therapist to see if there are deeper issues.”