Area communities, including Wilton, are grappling with the effects of vaping and what some are calling a “youth epidemic.”

At least 12 people have died across 10 states from a mysterious lung disease due to vaping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials still don’t know exactly what is making people sick from inhaling the vapor of e-cigarettes.

The number of Connecticut high school students who used e-cigarette products doubled from 2015 to 2017, according to a study released by the state Department of Public Health last fall, according to the CT Mirror. It reports that overall, 14.7 percent of high school students reported vaping in 2017, compared to 7.2 percent in 2015.

Wilton also has seen a rise in vaping among children. According to a survey conducted in 2014 by Wilton schools in conjunction with Wilton Youth Services and the Wilton Youth Council, about 20 percent of 11th and 12th graders and less than 1 percent of middle schoolers reported ever having tried e-cigarettes. By 2017 nearly 25 percent of ninth and 10th graders and 45 percent of 11th and 12th graders reported using an e-cigarette or JUUL in the previous month.

“We hope more youth (and adults) understand the real harm associated with vaping,” said Wilton Youth Services Coordinator Colleen Fawcett.

To discourage young smokers and prevent children from getting hooked on vaping, a new law took effect on Tuesday, Oct. 1, prohibiting Connecticut businesses from selling cigarettes, cigars, chewing and pipe tobacco and vaping products to people younger than 21.

The health effects from vaping have risen to such a level of concern, that Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell sent a letter to parents and students on Sept. 26, saying, “We take this issue very seriously and are making every effort to make sure that students are informed about the health risks, dangers, and consequences of vaping.”

The letter contained an information package telling parents what they need to know about vaping when talking to their children.

In addition, an anti-vaping presentation for ninth graders was held on Sept. 25 at Wilton High School, conducted by Elizabeth Jorgensen, director of Insight Counseling, warning about the dangers of vaping. Vaping is also routinely addressed as part of the curriculum in health classes.

“We’re looking at a preventative approach,” O’Donnell said, calling vaping a nationwide health concern.

In addition to vaping presentations, the high school has staff members and an outreach counselor who are trained to work with kids about vaping and substance abuse issues.

“Vaping has been popular for the past few years. It is a significant issue with kids, who are starting increasingly early,” Dr. O’Donnell said.

According to the CT Mirror, the state’s public health department has now logged 18 incidents of vaping-related lung disease, an increase of five since the office last shared data a week ago. All of the patients have been discharged from the hospital. Half required treatment in an intensive care unit.

Health officials said four of the patients are under the age of 18; 11 are ages 18 to 34; and three are 35 and older, according to the CT Mirror. “I am urging Connecticut residents to consider not using e-cigarette or vaping products, at least until we know more about what is making people sick,” public health commissioner Renée D. Coleman-Mitchell said.

In nearby Westport, a presentation was recently held at Westport Town Hall addressing the dangers of vaping.

“Vaping has become one of the most pressing issues facing our young population,” said Kevin Godburn, Westport’s youth services program director. “It’s something that’s ripped national headlines and we certainly feel it here at the local level.”

Tricia Dahl, a senior research assistant at Yale University School of Medicine, said one of the many dangers associated with vaping is the high concentration of nicotine that can be found in Juuls, rechargeable e-cigarettes used for vaping.

“We have kids that do our research studies who have never touched a cigarette before and are vaping the equivalent of one pod in about a day to a day and a half,” she said. “That’s the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day for someone who has never touched a cigarette before,” Dahl said.

Lynandro Simmons contirbuted to this story.

pgay@wiltonbulletin.com