Vape pen collection

Darby Mackenstadt, a public health intern for Montana State University's Office of Health Advancement holds a bucket of vape pens that the office's vape education initiative has collected from students.

BOZEMAN, Mont. - With 42 deaths and nearly 2,200 cases of lung illness connected to vaping across the United States, parents, school administrators, and health officials are racing to fight the growing epidemic.

But a student-led Montana State University effort may be setting a precedent for how to make a difference among students.

No shock here: smoking is bad. And campaigns like The Real Cost and truthorange have done an effective job at proving that through creative advertising in the last few years. But as tobacco use took a nosedive for younger generations, a new vice hit the market.

One in four high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the last 30 days, according to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) study from this year.

And as Americans learn more about the causes behind the nationwide vaping crisis, schools are kicking up efforts to inform students about the dangers of the trend.

Success varies, but it turns out the secret to collecting a pile of vape pens might just be the students themselves.

In the last three weeks, Montana State University’s Office of Health Advancement has collected 49 vape pens.

The masterminds behind this success are the office’s public health interns, Darby Mackenstadt and Rachel Park.

"We're starting to cue in that we are kind of the guinea pig generation,” Mackenstadt says. “And we don't want to fall back into the cigarette movement, and how that affected a whole generation. We don't want to repeat that."

Besides the health benefits, there are incentives. Students that turn in a vape pen get a $25 gift card to a local restaurant.

"If they're kind of struggling with getting started and taking that first step,” Park explains, “then incentivizing them with a little gift card” can be the motivation to get rid of vaping for good.

The students are using the same platform vaping companies use to target students: Instagram. They hope it will cut through the smoke and get their message out.

With creative initiatives that change every month, like #NoVapeNovember and “Quit Cold Turkey” for November and “Vaping is Spooky” for October, their efforts are paying off.

As Mackenstadt recalls, "Yesterday we had a student come in and it was like, they were turning in their device. They had just used it. They were like, 'This is it. I'm quitting, and then I'm done and you're my barrier.'"

Park says the personal connection with fellow students has been the most rewarding part of the experience, specifically “hearing people's stories… when they're turning in their devices, about why they wanted to quit.”

Mackenstadt and Park say they haven’t received any negative responses from students so far.

Vape pens are like any electronic, such as a cell phone or battery, and need to be disposed of properly.

The best way to dispose of a vape pen is by turning it in to the proper place that can separate the cartridge from the pen.

If you're in Bozeman, head to the Office of Health Advancement at 1102 S. 6th Avenue to drop it off at the designated box in the lobby.

If you're in Missoula, head to the University of Montana's Curry Health Center.

If you live elsewhere or for additional help, call your local public health department or click here for disposal tips.

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