A panel of Grand Forks-area leaders met at Sharon Lutheran Church Wednesday night to address electronic cigarette and other drug use among youth.

The increasing prevalence of e-cigarette products - more commonly known as "vapes" - is "essentially reversing" progress made in reducing youth tobacco use, said Haley Thorson, a nurse with the Grand Forks Public Health Department.

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Though young people often aren't aware of it, vapes deliver nicotine to the user, she noted.

And many parents might not even realize that vape products don't look like traditional cigarettes.

"There is a drug in that small device that looks like a jump drive," Thorson told dozens of attendees at Wednesday evening's panel discussion.

Vapes also may be referred to as "Juuls," the name of a specific e-cigarette product.

What's more, the vapor in e-cigarettes may contain other chemicals that are harmful to the lungs. That includes heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and other tiny particles that affect the lining of the respiratory system, Thorson said.

Among those younger than 25, nicotine use also may disrupt parts of the brain that control attention and learning, according to Thorson.

The use of vapes remains unregulated, she said. The Food and Drug Administration is working on regulations for e-cigarette products, but companies that produce them "have a lot of money to make things go more slowly," Thorson said.

"In the meantime, rates are just getting worse," she added.

The FDA commissioner and U.S. surgeon general have declared the use of e-cigarettes among young people as "an epidemic," Thorson noted.

Across the country, the number of middle and high school students who used e-cigarettes jumped from 2.1 million in 2017 to 3.6 million in 2018, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a 2017 survey of youth behaviors across North Dakota, the Grand Forks region came out on top for the percentage of high school students who use e-cigarettes and other similar products. In the Grand Forks area, 25.9 percent of high schoolers said they currently use such products. The Bismarck-Mandan area came in second at 22.9 percent.

Young people continue to use vaping products at a rate "so fast we can't even keep up with what products are out there," Thorson said.

Cindy McMillan, hired in November as a licensed addiction counselor with the Grand Forks Public Schools district, said she's "seeing a lot of vaping" among students. Vapes come in a variety of flavors, which increases their appeal among young people.

"The marketing people really had a great strategy," she said of e-cigarette companies.

Within the school district, McMillan said she sees seven students regularly to address drug abuse, which includes opiate use and alcoholism.

Issues in students' home lives may drive them to drug abuse, she said, noting that three students' parents recently died from overdosing.

The panel also included input from Grand Forks Police Sgt. Duane Simon and Sarah Shimek, co-chair of the Grand Forks Substance abuse coalition.

As states across the nation legalize recreational marijuana, Shimek said high school health teachers are beginning to have candid conversations about the drug with students.

"Marijuana usage ... is a very popular topic of conversation for young people," she said.