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Doctors, students work to stop growing trend of teenagers vaping marijuana

BELOIT (WKOW) — The growing popularity of e-cigarettes is making its way to young people — and they’re not just vaping nicotine.

The National Youth Tobacco Survey, released in September, found nearly one in 11 teenagers in the U.S. has used an electronic device to vape cannabis.

“A lot of people use those specifically to try to hide their marijuana,” said Kerilynn Guevara, a Beloit Memorial student.

Guevara says a lot of her classmates are using e-cigarettes and teachers have a hard time keeping up with the developing devices.

“Since it’s changing constantly, [teachers] can’t really keep up with all the new things that are coming out,” she told 27 News. “They’re a lot easier to hide. They can look like pens, pencils. If they confiscate something, they can’t immediately tell what’s in it, so really there could be anything inside of it.”

Young people taking charge

Guevara is a member of Youth2Youth 4 Change, a group of students in Rock County aiming to teach other young people about the dangers of drug use.

Youth2Youth spends the school year visiting area schools to talk about smoking and drug prevention. The students also stop by community events to spread their message beyond the classroom.

Director Debbie Fischer has been involved in the program since it started in 1991. She says the students work to keep up with changing trends and technologies, but their mission has remained the same over the years.

“If we don’t tell them, who’s going to tell them? So it’s so important that we’re here,” Fischer said. “The most important part is that it’s being delivered by youth, to youth. It makes an incredible impact compared to adults delivering it.”

Conversations with doctors

Doctors say while vaping devices may help adults quit smoking traditional cigarettes, the use among young people is exploding at a concerning rate. It’s become a must-cover issue at checkups with teenagers.

“It seems very popular,” said Dr. Dan Beardmore, a pediatrician with SSM Health in Janesville. “Everyone says they have a friend that does it. That often means that they’re doing it and just not telling me. At least trying it. I would have actually expected more than one in 11.”

Dr. Beardmore says it’s too soon to know the real health risks of vaping. His biggest concern with marijuana is how it impacts a teenager’s developing brain.

“In your teenage years, your brain is changing and you’re hammering down right from wrong and your development is changing,” he told 27 News. “Anything that alters your sense and your ability to learn, alcohol and marijuana, is going to alter that process.”

In August, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California released results of a survey of high schoolers in Los Angeles. It found teenagers who used e-cigarettes and hookah were up to four times more likely to use marijuana later.

Talking with teens

Dr. Beardmore says it’s important for parents to stay on top of the trends and develop a good relationship with their kids to know the risks.

“A teen won’t tell if you don’t ask, so if you just blindly go assuming you’ve got the best kid on the planet but you don’t directly ask the question, you won’t ever know,” he said.

That awareness can also spread through fellow students, like Guevara, who’s constantly working to share knowledge with her peers.

“I just want people to know the truth. I don’t want them to be fooled,” she said.

Federal efforts to tackle teen vaping

In September, federal health officials announced a crackdown on e-cigarette companies like Juul. Experts say the products are targeting teenagers with appealing flavors.

The FDA gave manufacturers a two-month deadline to show how they’ll keep the devices out of the hands of young people.

The agency also plans to increase enforcement at stores that sell the products.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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