Vaping: a teenage epidemic

Courtesy photo: Pictured above is an anti-vaping poster at Brookings High School. Vaping has reached epidemic levels amongst teenagers in the U.S., and despite legislation, continues to rise in both South Dakota and the rest of the country.

Teenage vaping on the rise in South Dakota, nationally

BROOKINGS – In the mid-2010s, cigarette smoking was on a decline among youth. In fact, cigarette use amongst teens were at its lowest levels since the initial surge of teen cigarette smoking. 

Then, around 2016, tobacco use amongst teens began to rise, rapidly. The cause? E-cigarettes, or “vapes,” as they are commonly referred to, began dominating the tobacco market. Suddenly, teens and young adults everywhere were hooked on vaping, sucking on plastic “nicotine-sticks,” blowing white, vapor clouds from sunup to sundown. 


E-cigarettes, the standard version that is seen today, were invented in 2003 by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik. 

Lik invented the technology for two reasons: His father, a smoker, died of lung cancer, and Lik himself was trying to quit a three-pack-a-day habit, according to a Reuters report from 2015. 

The technology quickly caught on and was branded as a safer, healthier alternative to cigarettes. The idea, early on, was that vaping nicotine rather than smoking cigarettes would be a healthier alternative and could actually help chain-smokers quit their habit.

In 2015, a new company, Juul Labs, emerged on the U.S. market and changed the industry forever. Rather than target branding toward current smokers, Juul decided to take a different direction, via social media. 

Juul was different than other e-cigarettes, too. Instead of “flavorless” smoke, Juul enhanced its vapes with flavors, like mango, cucumber, and crème. The flavored vapes took Juul to new heights, quickly becoming a shockingly popular company, fueled by the addictive behaviors of one specific group: teenagers. 

The vape frenzy became so great that policymakers and legislators began to take notice. Officials honed in on the flavors that made vaping (outside of the nicotine rush) so addictive. In November 2018, Juul halted the sale of its vape flavors, “in response to a reported increase in youth use of vapor products” per the company’s website. 

Legislators continued to push for more regulations, however. In late 2019, then President Donald Trump signed into legislation Tobacco 21, which raised the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.

“A lot of people think vaping is wonderful, its great – it’s really not wonderful,” Trump said in a September 2019 press briefing. “It’s not a wonderful thing, it’s got big problems.”

The Food and Drug Administration leveled even more regulations on “flavor cartridge-based e-cigarettes” banning the unauthorized manufacture, distribution and sale of flavors other than tobacco or menthol.

“As we work to combat the troubling epidemic of youth e-cigarette use, the enforcement policy we’re issuing today confirms our commitment to dramatically limit children’s access to certain flavored e-cigarette products we know are so appealing to them – so-called cartridge-based products that are both easy to use and easily concealable. We will continue to use our full regulatory authority thoughtfully and thoroughly to tackle this alarming crisis that’s affecting children, families, schools and communities,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn in a January 2020 press release.

During this time period, the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey results, conduct by the FDA in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were unveiled, showing that more than 5 million U.S. middle and high school students were current vape users.

“The United States has never seen an epidemic of substance use arise as quickly as our current epidemic of youth use of e-cigarettes,” said former HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a 2020 press release. 

South Dakota

Sierra Phelps, tobacco program director for the South Department of Health (SDDOH), says that vaping amongst teens and young adults in South Dakota is “very widespread.”

“Many students are vaping currently, and they don’t realize they are addicted to it,” Phelps said. “Many of them think that it is safe, and people don’t realize the numbers are growing here in South Dakota.”

Phelps said that data has been collected by the SDDOH through a youth tobacco survey for middle school students which shows that vaping in South Dakota is on the rise.

In 2017, the rate of e-cigarette use for middle school students was 2.5%. In 2019, the survey showed that middle school usage had tripled with 6.7% of students vaping. The national average for middle school vaping is 10.5%. 

The 2019 survey also found that one in every five middle school students (22.3%) had tried a tobacco product, with e-cigarettes being the most commonly used tobacco products amongst South Dakota middle school students.

The percentage of students who have ever used an e-cigarette in South Dakota also increased from 41% in 2015 to 50.6% in 2019.

“So it is increasing very rapidly,” Phelps said. 

Vaping addiction is not isolated to just middle and high school students. Phelps said that 9.8% of all young adults (18-24) in South Dakota were regular users.

Phelps said they are currently in the process of sending out a new tobacco survey with data (“hopefully”) being available by next year. 

In Brookings, School Resource Officer Josh Schneider says that more kids are vaping “than people would think.” Vaping has been around for a while, but Schneider says “that over the last two to three years, it has become a lot more popular.”

“I have had everyone from athletes to band people to – all genres of kids,” Schneider said, explaining that all types of students vape, and that he has caught all types of students vaping. 

According to Schneider, at Brookings High School, students will often vape in the hallways during breaks or in the bathrooms. The bathrooms, in particular, are where the majority of vaping happens at school, as it is difficult for the school to supervise all bathrooms.

“The bathrooms are our biggest issue,” Schneider said.

Two years ago, the high school went as far as to board up the main hallway bathroom because it is where “everyone would go to vape,” Schneider said.

“We would get reports of vaping and vandalism in there on a daily basis,” Schneider said. “Sinks were being broken, and soap dispensers were getting torn off the walls.”

Only recently did the high school “unboard” that particular bathroom, Schneider said. 

Other schools in South Dakota have gone as far as installing anti-vape detectors in hallways and bathrooms, Phelps confirmed. These sensors, which operate like smoke detectors, will send an instant alert to school administrators if vaping is occurring. While these are not considered to be an “evidence based” practice by the SDDOH, they are becoming more prevalent in schools across the country.

Vaping is difficult to detect because the devices that students use to vape with are often small and similar in look to other school centric objects, like pens and flash-drives. The devices are small enough and students are clever enough that some will even vape in class. Detecting vaping via smell is also difficult to do. Cigarette use, for example, is much easier to detect due to the noticeable smell that sticks to smokers’ clothes, but with vaping, the smell is much less pronounced.

“The vaping is more of the fruity-type smell,” Schneider said, explaining that it’s difficult for him to walk up to a student to tell whether he or she is vaping.

Students generally get caught either when staff or Schneider himself walks into the bathroom to find them vaping. Other times, fellow students will report on students vaping, often in the bathroom.

“We’ll bring them down and talk to them, and a lot of times they’ll be like ‘Yeah, I was doing it,’” Schneider said. “Other times, they’ll say, ‘No, I wasn’t doing anything.’”

The legal punishment for a tobacco violation is a fine ($107.5), or “they can go to court to fight it,” Schneider said.

According to the Brookings High School handbook, the punishment for a first offense tobacco violation is three days of out-of-school suspension (OSS). Second offense is five days OSS, while third and fourth offenses are 10 days OSS. 


Nicotine isn’t the only drug being vaped at the high school, Schneider said. Recently, there has been a rise in THC vape cartridges being confiscated. Similar in nature to smoking marijuana, these “carts,” as they are often known as, are almost indistinguishable from standard nicotine vapes.

“We are starting to see a lot more of (THC vapes). I have seen a few in the school,” Schneider said. “With our patrol guys (with the Brookings Police Department), we are starting to see a lot more of the THC carts and the THC vape pens.”

Schneider said that it’s difficult for him to tell from the smoke whether it’s a nicotine vape or a THC vape, but there is one distinguishing factor with THC vapes – the student’s demeanor.

“Obviously, you can tell with their demeanor. This stuff is just so strong, you can tell if someone is high from it or if they are just (regular) vaping,” Schneider said. 

Schneider, who keeps a collection of confiscated vapes to present to teachers, has seen some THC vapes but primarily still sees nicotine vapes in the school. This is the first school year that he has confiscated THC vapes.

The penalties for being caught with a THC vape are much stiffer than a nicotine vape. Because the carts are made from cannabis oil, they are considered a controlled substance, which means those caught with them will be charged with a felony.

“Whether (State’s Attorney Dan Nelson) wants to prosecute it as that or not, or drop it down is up to him,” Schneider said.

Do kids understand the severity of the penalty?

“I don’t know,” Schneider said. 

Schneider explained that sometimes, after the THC vapes are confiscated, he will have kids ask for them back. On some occasions, parents have even called. 

“I have had parents call and say, ‘Hey, that was my vape pen that was taken. Can I get that back?” Schneider said. “Mostly, the ones that I deal with are apologetic, though.”

Phelps said currently, the SDDOH does not keep data regarding youth THC vaping, but “they are aware that THC is being vaped.”


Phelps said that many people believe that vaping is a safer alternative to cigarette smoking, but that is not the case.

“It’s just as harmful with all the chemicals (that are in vapes),” Phelps said.

Further, Phelps said that students “don’t even realize what they are putting into their bodies.”

“Some don’t even realize there is nicotine in those vapes,” Phelps said. “They think it’s safe alternative. It’s not a cigarette, so they are not inhaling that smoke, but those chemicals that are coming from that vape are just as harmful.”

Along with being harmful, nicotine is also highly addictive. Some, Phelps said, don’t even realize they are hooked on it and quickly become addicted. 

Phelps said the harmful substances from vapes can cause anxiety, irritability, memory problems, and can even affect their school performance.

“Depending on how much they do vape, it can cause some health issues,” Phelps said. “So if a parent sees their child’s health declining, or see different things changing, definitely seek out a medical professional because it might be affecting their lungs and their heart health. They could have a chronic cough, shortness of breath, nose bleeds, changes in sleep, and even changes to their taste.”

Phelps said that quitting is difficult, and it often takes people multiple tries to rid themselves from a vaping addiction. Those that are looking to quit can call the South Dakota Quit Line (1-866-SDQuit). The SDDOH also offers free services to anybody 13 and older, which includes 12 weeks of phone coaching, a quit guide and quitting products (nicotine patches and gum).

“The South Dakota Tobacco Program is aware that vaping is becoming an epidemic, so we are currently working on an anti-vaping campaign to be released at the start of 2022-23 school year,” Phelps said. “This will include different materials, information, additional curriculum and other items that schools and teachers may need which could even be training with the teachers.”

Schneider said the best thing that parents can do to help prevent vaping is sit down and speak with their kids.

“If you suspect something, ask them, talk to them,” Schneider said. “I think that’s lacking a lot nowadays – parents just sitting down with their kids and talking to them. I think that because everybody is so busy nowadays, it’s hard to sit down and have a conversation with your kids. I’ve got four of them, so I know how hard it is to keep up with everything.” 

The Brookings School District has provided some resources on how to quit vaping on its homepage. The following link offers more information on vaping, provided by the SDDOH:

Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected]


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