The number of teens in Monroe County smoking cigarettes, e-cigarettes and using chewing tobacco has decreased.

The Monroe County Health Department reports that in 2017, 12 percent of students reported smoking cigarettes in the past 30 days, a notable decrease from 2011 where 19 percent of Monroe County high school students reported smoking.

The number of students who have reported smoking e-cigarettes fell from 12 percent in 2015 to eight percent in 2017. Chewing tobacco numbers have also decreased from 12 percent in 2011 to 10 percent.

Tomah Area School District superintendent Cindy Zahrte is pleased to see numbers decrease.

“I think it’s obviously a positive thing,” she said. “We know that smoking cigarettes is not healthy ... We have less children smoking and hopefully found that kids are also waiting to even try a cigarette. I think it goes to show that providing our students with accurate information of the dangers of tobacco as well as other drugs does influence their behaviors, and we need to continue to promote not using tobacco, not using drugs.”

Tomah High School health teacher Katie Spiers is also glad to see the results.

“It means that they’re making better choices,” she said. “I hope they’re learning of the effects those choices (to use tobacco) could lead to harm later in life. ... As a health educator it’s a huge relief.”

The message not to use tobacco products needs to be reinforced by parents and community members to students, Zahrte said.

“As adults they certainly have the ability to make a very well-informed decision about what they’re going to do to their bodies, but while those products are currently illegal for them, we want to make sure ... that you discourage them,” she said.

Early intervention is critical, Zahrte said.

“Students are hearing messages of the importance of them taking care of their bodies,” she said. “Having those messages reinforced by parents and grandparents and others in our community will have an impact on a child’s decision to use some type of substance that could be detrimental to their health.”

Spiers agrees.

“It is so important to get the right message to kids when they’re young,” she said. “The new challenge will be for us to learn more about vaping ... and e-cigs and their harmful effects. Students have to understand that (e-cigs) is still smoking and they’re still getting nicotine and it is a dangerous drug.”

So while the number of students smoking and using tobacco products has decreased, vaping remains a concern. The health department reported in 2017 that 15 percent of youth said they used electronic vapor products in the past 30 days.

Electronic vapor products include e-cigarettes, e-cigars, e-pipes, vape pipes, vaping pens, e-hookahs, and hookah pens.

In 2016 the Surgeon General of the United States found that aerosol (or vapor) from e-cigarettes is not safe. It can contain ingredients such as nicotine; ultrafine particles; flavorings such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which is found in car exhaust; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin and lead.

The health department also reported that while arguments have been made that e-cigarettes and electronic vapor products are safer and can help smokers quit, the FDA has not approved any e-cigarette as a safe or effective method to help smokers quit.

The best way to keep youth from smoking is to reinforce the dangers of it every year, Spiers said.

“In high school ... we do not talk specifically about tobacco itself, but we’ll give them a scenario and they have to apply that to all parts of their lives to weigh the consequences themselves,” she said. “We use lots of different learning strategies so students can hear the message lots of different ways — video clips, look up information ... I have a model called Mr. Gross Mouth that shows many of the harmful effects of smokeless tobacco.”

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