A new generation of Montana kids are getting hooked on nicotine, school officials say

Products hard to detect, good tasting, and even more addictive than cigarettes

By: - Sunday March 5, 2023 9:47 am

A new generation of Montana kids are getting hooked on nicotine, school officials say

Products hard to detect, good tasting, and even more addictive than cigarettes

By: - 9:47 am

A box of confiscated vaping and tobacco products taken at Will James Middle School in Billings (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

A box of confiscated vaping and tobacco products taken at Will James Middle School in Billings (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Picture the “Marlboro Man” – the iconic character created by the cigarette industry, clad in jeans, a pearl-snap shirt and western hat who was supposed to embody the cowboy culture and the West. Heck, think of Joe Camel, or John Wayne who endorsed Camel cigarettes.

Now, imagine them walking into any store, gas station or tobacconist and asking not for menthol, but for “Strawnanners Ice.” Or “Watermelon-Cantaloupe-Honeydew.”

These aren’t your father’s or grandfather’s tobacco products, and they may not even be yours. And that’s exactly the problem, say school administrators and leaders who have seen a gradual rise in vaping products, often containing more nicotine than in an entire pack of traditional tobacco cigarettes.

A grouping of vaping products that were confiscated from a high school in Billings. The flavored nicotine includes Watermelon Cantaloupe Honeydew, Mango Berry, Strawberry, and Sour Apple (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

After the legalization of recreational marijuana in Montana, some of those same vaping products can also heat and vaporize waxy blobs of material containing concentrated tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that creates the feeling of being high.

Last week, a kindergardener in Billings Public Schools was busted for using a vaping “pen” during class.

As Montana tackles this problem that has plagued nearly every state and school district, some lawmakers like Rep. Ron Marshall, R-Hamilton, have looked to uncouple tobacco products from other vaping products. Marshall, who is a co-owner of a vaping shop along with his wife, said the products should be treated differently, even though an estimated 99% of vaping products contain nicotine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Marshall sponsored House Bill 293, which would treat vaping products differently than tobacco products. Marshall and other Republicans argued that as alcohol and marijuana are different and treated differently, so too, should vaping products.

HB 293 passed the House by the narrowest of margins, 49-48, with a significant number of Republicans joining Democrats in objecting to the bill. The bill now heads to the Montana Senate.


One lawmaker claimed that no one has linked vaping products and underage tobacco use together.

Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, rejected the argument the bill would somehow put more vapes in the hands of young people, and he said no one adequately explained it either.

“Nobody who made that argument even attempted to connect the dots there because if they did, it would spell the word ‘nonsense,’” Hopkins said.

But Hopkins wouldn’t need dots to see the problems in places like high schools and middle schools. Most school administrators have drawers full of vaping products confiscated from students, and many literally ooze with so much nicotine that they need rubber gloves to handle the material. They told the Daily Montanan that the drawers and boxes full of vaping products are just the ones that haven’t been admitted into evidence lockers as school resource officers have seen an uptick in the number of tickets they’ve written for minor-in-possession of an illegal substance.

Marketing to minors?

Smoking isn’t what it used to be.

A generation ago you needed to carry around a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and find a place, and possibly an ashcan or garbage. And burning down a smoke took some time.

A display of just some of the vaping products confiscated from students at Skyview High in Billings. Officials said there were more products that were taken, but they were introduced as evidence in a court after ticketing students for minor in possession (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Now, small liquid tanks in vaping devices mean a vaporizer can heat the oil-based liquid to oven-like temperatures in less than a minute and deliver the nicotine equivalent of several cigarettes. And instead of a cloud of cigarette smoke, the technology has evolved to create a smell that’s akin to candy, if it smells at all.

The vaping devices often look like pens, make-up containers, pencils, or can be placed on lanyards, making them hard to detect. A new generation of vaporizers, sometimes called “pens” look identical to a thumb drive or a USB-device. That’s because they use the drive to recharge, but function as smoking devices.

Today, the choice to vape isn’t about a brand, as it was with cigarettes. Now, the choice is flavor. A few moments with a box of contraband that most schools have collected demonstrates a menu of flavors that seems stolen from a candy store or ice cream shop – strawberry yogurt, blueberry ice, blueberry banana, cherry, cookies’n’cream.  Some names seem hard to imagine an adult asking for, like, razzleberry or strawnanners (a mash-up of strawberries and banana).

“With all of these products in so many stores, we see little to no cigarettes and all electronics,” said Billings Senior High Principal Jeff Uhren. “(Vapes) don’t smell like cigarettes – that distinct smell. Now it’ll smell like bubblegum or cotton candy. It’s more prevalent than cigarettes were. Maybe if you go back – way back – it was cool to smoke more, but now it’s cool to vape.”

A vaping pen that advertises the flavor “Strawnanners Ice” (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Skyview High Assistant Principal Scott Lynch said that the most recent youth risk behavior report showed as many as 75% of students had vaped. He said that even if that number is inflated, the number has got to be at least 50%.

Educators say part of the challenge is overcoming the perception that vaping is not harmful because it doesn’t involve burning tobacco. Other challenges, though, include how easily kids can get the vaping products. Many are disposable, and some are refillable.

School administrators across the state told the Daily Montanan that the most common question they receive from parents is: Can I have it back? (The answer is “no” because bringing vaping products to school is illegal, and the item collected is destroyed.)

Schools across the state report an uptick in dealing with vaping issues, from students sneaking out of class or gathering in large groups in the bathrooms, to some actually pulling out a vape pen during class and firing it up there.

There are hoodie sweatshirts designed with drawstrings that double as tubes connected to a vaporizer in a pouch that is hard to detect. Chewing on a string can be identical to taking a few puffs on a vaporizer.

“The industry has made it more appealing as their sales of cigarettes were dropping,” Lynch said. “They’re making it better, cheaper, and it’s the cool thing to have it. No one wants to be left out of the equation.”

A vaping pen put on a lanyard makes it easier to conceal for students. This one advertises “Rainbow Candy.” (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

School officials say since Montana legalized recreational marijuana, there’s been an uptick in “dabs” – concentrated THC in wax form that is melted in some vaporizers. Though by far, they say the largest issue is the nicotine in vaporizers.

Administrators in both high school and middle school say they spend several hours a day on average trying to thwart the growing problem – working with students and teachers, scanning camera footage, collaborating with school resource officers and even installing vape sensors in bathrooms, which can detect nicotine and THC in small amounts.

“That happened because the taboo was removed from vaping. It’s almost encouraged as a treatment for everything from depression to irritable bowel syndrome,” said Brooke Krininger, health services coordinator for Missoula County Public Schools. “They say that since they’ve legalized it, it can’t be that bad, but I remind them that alcohol and tobacco are legalized, and they can be very dangerous.”

Even though THC and marijuana-related products have increased, most say 90% of the problem rests with nicotine and the tobacco industry.

“Here’s the reality: Our kids are addicted to nicotine. They need their nicotine,” Uhren said. “Smoking was seen as uncool. Now, these companies have done a nice job of resetting and getting them addicted to their product. They’ve done that – if this is even the right term – really, really well.”

School discipline

It’s not just that vaping products are finding their way into the school, Lynch said, it’s the wide swath of students who are experimenting with them. Cigarettes, alcohol and even marijuana were often relegated to certain groups, but vaping cuts across all grade levels and backgrounds. Grade-point average, clothing styles, co-curricular activities – it just doesn’t matter.

Administrators say the lawmakers may not be the only ones who are unaware of how big the problem is.

“Parents need to be aware. Truly, that’s part of the issue,” Uhren said. “We will bust a student for vaping, and the parents come in and they have no idea. We have to tell them that your kid tried it, used it and might be addicted to it.”

In Billings, several vape shops have reported break-ins. Video surveillance and footage showed middle-school aged kids smashing windows and grabbing vaping products. Other places like gas stations have reported an uptick in shoplifting attempts as youth try to pocket vaping materials.

Becky Carlson, principal at Will James Middle School in Billings, pointed out another easy access point for acquiring vaping products comes from social media. Students use Snapchat and other temporary messaging services to arrange for payments, pick-ups, and drop-offs to get vaping products, often from strangers whose names are never known.


“You’re giving money to a person you’ve never met, and don’t know. You don’t know what you’re getting or who they are. How dangerous is that?” Carlson said.

Every person interviewed for this story said that access to vaping products is easy, and not a problem for any child with a cell phone or connection to the Internet.

“With the rise in fentanyl and other substances, you don’t know what you’re ingesting,” Carlson said.

A vaping pen designed to look similar to a pen, confiscated at a Billings, Montana middle school (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Sometimes, students go to places like malls and grocery stores looking for disposable, discarded vaping products. They’ve figured out how to recharge them and get those last few puffs — like smoking used cigarettes out of ashtrays.

Because the problem has only started to emerge, the disciplinary process can vary from school to school and district to district. Lynch and others saw vaping products begin their entry into schools five to six years ago, but COVID interrupted the process of dealing with the problem.

Carlson said that last school year, administrators had 14 cases of vaping. This year, they’ve already eclipsed that number.

At Skyview High in Billings, where the student population numbers around 1,600, students caught vaping face in-school suspension for as long as three days, which can be reduced if they attend a day-long vaping class offered by RiverStone Health, the county’s public health department.

However, Lynch and other educators point out that even attending a vape class and completing the suspension takes students out of the classroom where they’d otherwise be learning.

Most high schools have school resource officers, and most of them will write citations for minor-in-possession because tobacco products are illegal to possess or use for students under the age of 18.

“We charge everyone,” Lynch said.

That leads to involvement by the courts and parents. Students have to go before a judge, and the ticket or conviction usually results in a fine or community service.

School administrators know to search shoes, socks, sleeves of hoodies, necklaces, and to look closely even at pens and pencils.

“I saw one student on camera and brought her in, and I said we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” Carlson said. “The student whipped it out of her bra and said, ‘You busted me.’”

Will James Assistant Principal Will Neuman sees the time it takes administrators to deal with the problem – time that could be spent helping other students or focusing on education.

A vaping device that can easily be concealed in the palm of a hand (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“The more pressing thing is that for every one time we catch someone vaping, there are probably 10 to 20 we don’t,” he said.

More than vaping

At Billings Senior High, Uhren said vape detectors, which cost around $1,000 each for the dozen bathrooms, have solved one problem, and moved another.

Now, students report they can get into the bathroom – more comfortably. Previously, groups of students would use the bathroom as a safe harbor to vape, often groups of as many as dozen squeezing into a bathroom stall to “nic.”

“The kids who actually needed to use the restroom couldn’t,” Uhren said.

When the sensors now detect the vaping, they send a text in real time to administrators and nearby teachers. The sensors, which look like overgrown smoke detectors, are usually in a cage, and have tampering sensors, too. If someone tries to disable, remove or destroy it, it sends a text alert. A real-time app allows administrators to monitor air quality levels in bathrooms in real time. And, they learned that a certain type of toilet bowl cleaner triggers the alarm, which staff discovered when they all got texts late at night as the janitorial staff was cleaning.

A notice is placed on the entry of every bathroom warning students that vaping monitors are in place.

A vape detector that monitors the air in the bathrooms at Billings Senior High. The device has an anti-tampering system and detects vaping products, both for nicotine and THC (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“But there was this rumor that we’ve had them for years,” Uhren said. “When we first installed them, they wanted to test them and see if they work. And they did.”

Even though the problem has disappeared from the bathroom, Uhren doubts it has left the school.

At Skyview, which hasn’t yet installed detectors, the options are different.

“It’s hard to monitor,” Lynch said. “Who wants to stand in the bathroom and watch kids? It’s uncomfortable for everyone. A kid who goes to use the bathroom, and who wants someone staring at them?”

Price has stopped the implementation of more of them, but also parents are concerned about privacy.

One former school resource officer at Skyview had a unique punishment: He took a small sledgehammer to the shop class and had it laser engraved with a name, “The Vaporizer.” He then had students use the tool to smash their vaporizers as punishment when they were caught.

Schools that have installed vaping sensors said that the problem has likely moved from more private places to more obvious ones. School administrators reported to the Daily Montanan that some students are caught vaping in hallways or even during testing in class.

Distracted learning

Lynch said students are already distracted, spending a lot of time on smartphones. Now, educators are having to contend with vaping devices, too. And it’s not just the devices.

“The nicotine rush is instant. Bang! It’s over,” Lynch said. “But this affects everything they’re doing. They’re distracted.”

He said that because there’s no smoke, students have the impression that vaping is safer or less dangerous.

“It seems cool because everyone seems to have one and they don’t want to be left out,” he said.

Even when kids are in class, they’re distracted by wanting another hit of nicotine. Those students often ask to use the bathroom, and even if they go to vape, it’s a distraction for the teacher, other students and interrupts that student’s progress, Uhren said.

Neuman said he often finds that vaping may be tried because it seems cool or safe, but many students end up using for other reasons.

A vaping detector above the urinals and sinks in a boys’ bathroom at Billings Senior High (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“When we catch someone, we try to find out: Why did you vape?” Neuman said. “A lot of times it comes down to they’re stressed, and they’re using it to take that away. Then we have a conversation about other ways to handle stress. A lot of time, they’re dealing with things at home, too.”

Krininger said vaping combines two highly addictive things for young people into one. Not only is the nicotine highly concentrated, but students love the technological gadgetry of the vaping products. Just as cell phones have become a constant distraction, so too, has vaping.

“Those companies have incorporated technology into the gadgetry of vaping,” Krininger said. “It’s just another tech-related thing they can do.”

And the technology has decreased the social stigma attached to using vaping products.

“There used to be a stigma attached with smoking, and the people who participated in it. Some didn’t because they didn’t want to be part of that culture,” Uhren said. “But now the pendulum has swung and it’s cool and different and more popular than ever.”

Krininger, also a registered nurse with a master’s in public health, has already seen a number of students come in with repeated trouble breathing, or being diagnosed often with respiratory infections. This year, she’s had three students complaining of the same troubles, and they vaped. When she recommended cutting back on vaping, their symptoms improved.

Krininger said the pressure to start vaping is usually social, but what happens after that is physiological.

“One vape cartridge is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes,” she said. “And it works by burning oil. We know that ingesting that is harmful in itself – it’s not benign.”

Missoula County Public Schools is even considering adding a vaping cessation class for support. As students become addicted, they realize they cannot seem to quit.

Others believe vaping, for them, will only be temporary.

“They believe they’re invincible, or they’ll quit later on in life,” Krininger said.

But she said students also seem to believe because it doesn’t taste bad – in fact, it tastes good – and smells fruity that it can’t be harmful.

“The perception is that it’s safer,”Uhren said. “It’s so new that the effect is long-term, and we don’t know what that’s going to be. And that’s what really concerns me.”

—Deputy editor Keila Szpaller contributed to this report.


A notice posted on the entrance to bathrooms in Billings Senior High, warning students and the public that vaping monitors are installed there (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.