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Message sent: Students, health organizations bring awareness to vaping dangers

High school students in Lee and Ogle counties have enlisted the help of health organizations in their mission to eliminate vaping and e-cigarette use.

KSB Hospital, the Lee and Ogle county health departments and Lee-Ogle-Whiteside Regional Office of Education have worked with Dixon, Oregon, Amboy, Polo and Ashton-Franklin Center high schools to come up with ideas to help combat a problem of vaping and e-cigarettes use among teenagers.

AFC seniors Jay Long and Natalie Sondgeroth and junior Justice Fike on Wednesday launched a Facebook page, Don’t Wait ‘Til It’s Too Late, to spread information about such dangers. The page contains scientifically backed statistics, graphics and images, and will be updated weekly by the groups from the other high schools.

“I knew it was a big thing, but I didn’t know about what it can cause and what happens when you do it,” Sondgeroth said.

Groups met three times before Christmas break to find ways to spread awareness of the dangers of vaping.

“It takes you away from your friends and away from your schooling,” Long said. “It’s about what you want to do compared to what you have to do.”

Their approach has three prongs: communication of the problem to the students, having them engage in projects to learn more about it and spread awareness of dangers, and then to extend its education to the general public.

Vaping is when users inhale vaporized liquids from electronic devices. Liquids come in many flavors, including certain foods and scents. They contain nicotine, diacetly; which is linked to lung disease; benzine, often found in car exhausts.

“I think students who take any substance are at a high risk of having a more difficult life, especially if they don’t know what’s in the substance that they are partaking,” AFC Principal Kim Torman said. “Causing that awareness from the student voice is more powerful than me telling them or another adult telling them. It’s just more organic, and they can trust it more.”

The group began in the summer and surveyed parents of teenagers to get a grasp of their knowledge of vaping and e-cigarettes. Fliers then were created for each school and passed out to more parents at parent-teacher events such as Back to School Night and one-on-one semester conferences.

Vaping devices and e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product in the U.S. since 2014. Usage has been linked to five deaths in Illinois as well as at least 187 cases of lung injury associated with vaping.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Report, e-cigarette use among high school students nationally rose from 1.5% to 20.8% from 2011 to 2018. Use of cigarettes decreased during that same time, from 15.8% to 8.1%, as did cigars, from 11.6% to 7.6%, and smokeless tobaccos, from 7.9% to 5.9%.

While other substances have distinct shapes and smells, vaping materials can be difficult to spot, KSB Corporate Health Director Aaron Fox said. The committee worked with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois to create a “Hidden in Plain Sight” room, a mock-up of a teenager’s bedroom designed to help adults recognize signs of substance abuse in their teen’s life.

The rooms also were set up at parent-teacher events, as well as sporting events.

“Some of the vaping products look like small USB drives or pens that parents would not recognize,” Fox said.

Schools chose two or three students to be part of a focus group to provide thoughts on vaping and discussed use at their schools during three recent meetings at the hospital.

They also plan to educate grade school kids in their respective towns about vaping, Fox said.

“These will be facts and possibly stories on what they are doing specifically at their school to help with the vaping problem,” Fox said.

Other information includes identifying lingo such as mods, tanks, and hookah, as well as companies that market the products. Information on how kids can obtain them, such as through the use of online purchases on prepaid debit cards, also is provided.

Oregon High School junior Sydney Hermes knew vaping was bad for people, but was stunned to learn details that aren’t widely circulated, such as the chemicals used in the products.

What frightens her is how vaping produces chemical byproducts that have not been identified by scientists as of yet, and are still being researched.

“We don’t even know the full risks of inhaling such substances, yet people are willingly using them,” she said. “I had never intended to vape before I was introduced to these facts, but now I will be sure to keep my lungs clean for life.”

She learned that nicotine-free juices and e-cigarettes still contain addictive chemicals, and how mixing juices can be too toxic for immune and white blood cells.

“Parents should be more afraid of their kids starting to vape than of them starting to drive,” she said. “The chances of bodily harm are much more likely.”

Amboy High School sophomore Hayden McCoy wanted to come to a solution to help solve the problem in his community and neighboring ones, and that meant piecing together impacting data.

“Many of the things found in vapes are unknown to the FDA,” he said. “Vaping in our school has slowed down a large amount.”

The Whiteside County Health Department created fliers to distribute throughout county high schools and has an advertising campaign about vaping dangers through radio spots and billboards – particularly those that read “Vaping kills” with a black-and-white picture of damaged lungs in the background.

The billboards were posted on East Lincolnway in Sterling across from Kohl’s; and First Avenue in Rock Falls near Arthur’s Garden Deli. Their cycle at both spots has expired and they have since been taken down.

Whiteside County Health Administrator Cheryl Lee knows that it’s a strong statement, but it’s needed to help educate people on the dangers of vaping.

“[Vaping] does kill, but it does not kill everybody,” she said. “Cigarettes kill, but they don’t kill everybody.”

The message is getting out, she said.

“Some people may disagree with that, but getting it out there and having discussion no matter what side of the fence you’re on, – whether you think it’s a healthy alternative, or not a healthy alternative – the fact that there’s a discussion out there brings awareness to the issue,” she said. “It’s not meant to offend anybody, it’s meant to help people have healthier behaviors.”

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