Student survey alarms officials: 1 in 4 Minnesota 11th graders vape

Someone holds a personal vaporiser with a refillable glass tank filled with e-liquid. (John Abbate / Contributor)

Minnesota's governor and public health officials are sounding the alarm after a new statewide survey revealed a skyrocketing number of students who use e-cigarettes.

One in four Minnesota high school juniors said they vaped in the previous month, a 54 percent increase from the most recent student survey in 2016, according to Minnesota Department of Health statistics. And 11 percent of 8th graders said they've vaped, which is nearly double the previous survey's findings.

"This, left unchecked, is catastrophic," Gov. Tim Walz told reporters at a news conference to announce the numbers Wednesday.

Walz said his executive authority to impose sweeping changes on the e-cigarette industry is limited. With Minnesota officials searching for answers involving public awareness campaigns, some school districts and parents have begun implementing their own responses.

Walz said he tried last month to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, as Michigan's governor recently did, but state government lawyers told him he didn't have the power to do so. The first-term Democratic governor said he is asking the state Legislature to change the law, granting him the authority.

"The concerns on making sure there’s not an abuse of executive power is one thing, but this is a crisis," he said.

State public health officials said 55 Minnesotans have suffered lung injuries that have either been confirmed or suspected to be linked to vaping. One person has died.

All of Minnesota's cases involve illicit THC from unregulated sources -- not the state's medical marijuana program, state health commissioner Jan Malcolm said. But nationwide, there may end up being several culprits for the illnesses, she said.

"It’s true in the majority of cases nationally, but not all. Which is why we still can’t say, it is THC and only THC," Malcolm said.

Three out of four 11th graders surveyed said they saw no, little, or moderate risk in using e-cigarettes, according to the state statistics.

School districts are grappling with vaping issues in high schools and middle schools. 

In Eagan, mom Stephanie Benedict started researching the issue after her own child dealt with issues related to vaping. She discovered so-called "vape sensors" that some schools have begun installing in their bathrooms. 

They're app-based, and alert nearby teachers when they detect a student vaping.

But the sensors, which look similar to smoke detectors, are $1,150 to buy and install, making them cost-prohibitive to schools. So Benedict said she took up a collection with some local sports organizations and got enough money to buy five or six of the devices.

"Vape sensors are not a fail-safe, they’re probably not going to stop the problem, but at least it’s something," she said in an interview. "If it stops one or two kids from even going into those bathrooms (to vape), it’d be great."

The sensors were installed last week at Eagan High School and are now working, the school’s principal told FOX 9.

Walz, asked if the state needed to provide school districts with money targeted for a response to vaping, said Minnesota officials would have to consider what resources were required.

The governor and public health officials blasted tobacco companies, which own e-cigarette brands, and accused them of targeting children with their advertising.

Sue Nokleby, a school nurse in District 287 in Plymouth, came to the governor's news conference with a plastic bag of vape products confiscated from students. 

"A lot of these flavors they have are called candy crush, cotton candy, bubble gum," she said. "Honestly, is this something a 50 year old person would want to be smoking? Maybe. But it seems to me it’s targeting children."