Box holding JUUL nicotine dispenser and pods

A Juul e-cigarette or nicotine vapor dispenser box and JUULpod.

St. Helena school officials and a remarkable group of students are reacting to a new public health threat, and the rest of us need to start paying attention.

Call it vaping, e-cigarettes or Juuling. Just don’t call it safe, and don’t let its paraphernalia anywhere near your kids.

Lest we sound like out-of-touch reactionaries bellowing about the latest inscrutable youth trend, we’ll let the statistics speak for themselves.

More than 1,800 people have come down with EVALI, a poorly understood lung disease that appears to be linked to homemade THC vaping oils. Fifteen percent of those diagnosed are minors, and 37 people have died.

In 2018, 23% of St. Helena High School freshmen reported having vaped within the previous 30 days. That’s up from 4% in 2017.

Thirty-one percent of juniors reported having vaped marijuana or THC – the same stuff that’s associated with EVALI – at one point or another.

Aside from EVALI, vaping gets you addicted to nicotine and exposes you to a toxic aerosol (think hairspray, not vapor) containing a slew of nasty chemicals. One little cartridge or “pod” the size of a thumbnail – and costing just $4 – contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.

Worst of all, vaping and its accessories are cynically and ruthlessly marketed toward kids, with candy-like flavors such as Unicorn Poop, Circus Cookie and Fruity Pebbles.

E-cigarettes themselves are easily mistaken for pens, thumb drives, cosmetics, or asthma inhalers. There’s even a cottage industry of accessories that enable kids to conceal their vaping or decorate their e-cigarettes with colorful “skins” like the ones you see on cell phones.

The St. Helena Unified School District, working with School Resource Officer Stephanie Lupien, deserve credit for their robust, multi-faceted response to youth vaping, which hit the district “fast and furious” last year, Superintendent Marylou Wilson said.

The district’s Wellness Committee, headed by Chief Business Official Andi Stubbs, identified vaping as a threat and started working on policies to fight it. School officials incorporated the hazards of vaping into the health curriculum, educated parents through presentations and online resources, enrolled kids caught with e-cigarettes and paraphernalia in a Stanford-approved cessation program, and maintained partnerships with service providers at Aldea, St. Helena Hospital, the UpValley Family Centers, and the UpValley Partnership for Youth.

Officials installed vape detectors at the high school and plan to install more at RLS Middle School, where kids seem to be picking up the habit. They also encourage kids to report vaping, bullying or other harmful behavior through an anonymous app.

We applaud the district’s response and urge them to follow the data and focus on the most effective strategies.

An even brighter glimmer of hope came from an eighth-grader who is organizing her own peers against vaping. She told us we could print her real name, but we decided to just call her Rachel.

She told us she started getting annoyed by vaping at the end of last year. “It’s hard to sit and watch your friends do this to themselves,” she said.

If Rachel smells a fellow middle-schooler vaping in a bathroom stall, she won’t confront them. Instead she’ll slip outside, gather some friends, and make a conspicuously loud entrance to the bathroom, shaming the vaper into stopping.

Rachel has organized a group of about 20 concerned students who’ve created anti-vaping posters and plan to lobby Mayor Geoff Ellsworth and Rep. Mike Thompson to pass legislation aimed at keeping vaping products away from kids. For starters, that could mean banning their sale in St. Helena, where they’re currently available at two convenience stores.

California stores can only sell vaping products to people 21 and over, but teens are smart enough to find loopholes. They enlist older siblings or friends or buy vaping products online and have them shipped to an Amazon Hub Locker in Santa Rosa. They just have to check a box saying they’re 18.

The vaping industry would like us to believe that vaping is safer than smoking. The truth is, vaping is so new that there’s zero evidence to back that up. On the contrary, the EVALI outbreak suggests that vaping causes a whole new set of health problems we’re only beginning to understand.

“We just don’t know” doesn’t equal “safer than smoking.” And besides, given what we know about the deadly consequences of cigarettes, “safer than smoking” sets an awfully low bar in the first place.

Decades ago, despite the tobacco industry’s best efforts, science showed us the hazards of traditional smoking, and we responded accordingly by taxing the industry, printing dire warnings on packages, socially stigmatizing smoking, banning it in many public places, and prohibiting cigarette ads on TV and radio.

It’s time now to do what we can at the local level by banning the sale of vaping products in St. Helena and keeping these toxic substances out of our schools and homes.

The Star editorial board consists of editors David Stoneberg and Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Christopher Hill, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.

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