Officer Rick Latanzio, OPD's school resource officer for Owensboro Public Schools, said he encounters students with vaping products on a regular basis.

"For every pack of cigarettes, I would say we'd find at least 20 or more vaping devices," Latanzio said in a recent interview.

Latanzio, who has been a school resource officer for several years, saw an increase in student vaping during the 2018-19 school year.

"That's when it really took off and it has been an issue ever since," he said.

"It's every day, multiple times a day," he said when asked how often he deals with vaping products in schools.

Like cigarettes, vaping products are prohibited in the schools and officials in both the city and county school districts have launched campaigns to educate parents and students about what they see as the dangers of kids using e-cigarettes, such as nicotine addiction and lung damage, and the possibility of it being a gateway to the use of other types of drugs. Also, there have been 1,600 document cases of respiratory illness attributed to the use of vaping products in the U.S., including 34 deaths.

E-cigarettes with nicotine are every bit as addictive as a traditional tobacco product, but that's disguised by flavorings that tempt kids. Rebecca Horn, a health educator with the Green River District Health Department, told parents at a recent meeting on vaping that a survey found 40 percent of students who use vaping products have never smoked a traditional cigarette.

"It's a lot easier for a sixth-grader to use something that tastes like creme brulee than a cigarette," Horn said. But with an e-cigarette pod containing as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, students who become addicted will use other tobacco products to feed their habit.

In 2018, sales of all kinds of tobacco products increased for the first time in years, Horn said.

"I tell kids, 'Once you're addicted, you don't care what if it tastes like cotton candy" or not, Horn said. "You're going to use what makes you feel good."

The idea with educational programs, like the one Horn gave at Owensboro Middle School, is to teach them to recognize vaping devices, which is difficult because the devices are often made to look like thumb drives, Sharpies and other innocent items. Students also get information on vaping in schools, and OPS school board member Michael Johnson said the district would like vaping education to become part of the curriculum in classes like health class.

Trooper Corey King, public affairs officer for the Kentucky State Police Henderson post, said the concern for him is that vaping devices can be used to smoke not just nicotine products, but also substances with highly-concentrated levels of THC and synthetic drugs.

"The broader concern, that we've not seen locally but in other states, is drug dealers are pushing synthetic THC, and some of those have traces of fentanyl," King said. "The broader concern is we are turning middle school kids into heroin addicts."

***

Kids start using vaping products for the same reason kids in previous generations smoked, Latanzio said.

"They see so many people doing it," he said. "It's the popular thing."

There's no "type" of student who vapes any more than there was a type that smoked, he said.

"People smoke cigarettes from all walks of life," Latanzio said. "These are the same way. It doesn't matter if the child gets all As, or Ds, if they're athletes ... race or gender. These things, you can find them everywhere."

At a meeting Thursday night at Owensboro Middle School, Horn told parents the most recent Kentucky Incentives for Prevention survey found 26.7 percent of 12th-graders reported using electronic cigarettes.

And while e-cigarettes were marketed as a way to help people quit smoking, there's no evidence that actually happens, Horn said.

Kids get attracted to vape products partly through internet "influencers," who promote products on platforms like YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat, Horn said. The products get to younger students from the 18-year-old students, since a person can purchase vaping products legally at that age, she said.

And vaping products are easy to hide.

"If you looked in your kids' backpack, you might not know what you've found," Horn said. But, generally, if a device has a charger in it, that could be an e-cigarette, she said.

Some devices have as much nicotine as three packs of cigarettes, Horn said. Because they can be used without flavorings, it's easy for a student to ingest a high concentration of nicotine quickly. A student who's hurting for a nicotine fix is naturally going to have difficulty concentrating in class.

"Now, we've got a new generation that's addicted to a (nicotine) product, and nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs on the planet," she said.

The state only recently began gathering information on illnesses associated with vaping, but there have been two confirmed cases of vaping-related illnesses in Kentucky. Horn said some concerns about vaping include people developing permanent scarring on the lungs, asthma, and bacterial and fungal contamination. A Harvard University study released earlier this year studied 75 vaping products, and found 23 percent of them were contaminated with bacteria and toxins from fungus, USA Today reported.

Horn said students who start vaping don't realize how addictive the products can be. While there are vaping products without nicotine, they make up only 1 percent of all vaping sales.

"I can't get super-mad at these kids, because they got played," Horn said. "They didn't realize they were going to get hooked on smoking."

King said that in addition to nicotine, people can vape odorless synthetic marijuana and products like "dab oil" that have extremely high levels of THC, without being given away by the smell. King said KSP mostly encounters vape pens with nicotine but has seen pens that contained dab oil.

"It's around 80 to 90 percent THC" in dab oil, "while a regular rolled marijuana cigarette is 5 to 10 percent THC," King said.

"There are studies that show (use of) higher levels of THC with higher levels of psychosis," King said.

In March, National Public Radio reported a study by The Lancet Psychiatry that found frequent marijuana use "especially using high-potency cannabis, increases the odds of having a psychotic episode later."

Products like dab oil are being made locally and busts have uncovered dab oil makers in Evansville and Hancock County, King said.

"We're seeing a lot of it being manufactured here."

Weirdly, there's even a dab subculture, with products made specifically to contain dab oil, concealers that look like soda and water bottles, or potato chip cans that stash the oil, and even clothing that signals dab use. A shirt that says "710" is a sign too, because July 10 was allegedly dab oil's "birthday."

Because under-age kids can't buy vaping products legally, kids without a source (that is, an entrepreneurial 18-year-old selling to younger students) are going to turn to bootleg products, Horn said.

The issue, as with any street drug, is that the kid buying bootleg vaping supplies doesn't know what's really in the product they are using, King said.

"With the youth, there's a belief that this is a safer option (than smoking), and it's not," he said. "If you're getting this stuff from a dealer ... you don't know the source."

***

Damon Fleming, director of student services for Daviess County Public Schools, said tobacco-related offenses have decreased by about 20 percent compared to last year. But the district does deal with students who are caught with vaping products.

"We do see some vaping products in the middle schools, but you also see them in the high school," Fleming said. "... It's a societal issue. When you go out in the community, you are seeing more and more adults using these products. It seems like they are growing in popularity with adults, also."

OPS board member Michael Johnson said the district is trying to get the word out to parents about student vaping through a "media campaign," and also through meetings like one held recently at Burns Middle School.

"We are looking at trying to incorporate it into the schools, perhaps in health class," Johnson said. "... We want to keep it in front of parents and students."

The campaign was driven by school officials noting an increase in vaping, Johnson said.

"We saw an increase over a couple years' period of time, from where it was just a few kids doing Juul, and it exploded and almost doubled," he said.

The devices can easily be mistaken for something else.

"They make these items to look like school supplies, or even thumb drives," Johnson said.

Fleming said when county school officials find a student with an e-cigarette, the student is sent to in-school suspension and is given information about vaping.

The school system also uses a program called "Catch My Breath" that educates students on "the potential side-effects" of vaping, he said.

John DeLacey, principal at Owensboro High School, said he couldn't discuss discipline for students caught with vaping products. The students do receive information about vaping through student-focused groups where students come to talk about social issues, with the incentive that DeLacey provides lunch.

"Vaping is something that is a current event with them. It gives me a chance to talk about (vaping) and the side effects," DeLacey said. "Usually, if I can give out good enough information, they'll relate it to their friends."

"This is a very addictive thing for (students) to get a hold of, and it has to stop," Johnson said.

There haven't been any reports of students becoming ill from vaping products "and we want to keep it that way," he said.

"We are trying to stay up with the trends" on vaping, Johnson said. "The main thing is educating the students."

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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