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Dr. Beth Gero speaks to parents and students about vaping Wednesday night at Auburn High School.

AUBURN — Dr. C. Beth Gero said that after speaking to nine Auburn High School classes about vaping and electronic cigarettes Wednesday, she is more convinced than ever that it is an epidemic in the United States.

Gero spoke to a group of about 20 people at the Auburn High School library Wednesday night for a seminar on common vaping and and tobacco products; how common they are and the health risks related to smoking and vaping. The seminar was sponsored by the Cayuga County Health Department and the Cayuga Community Health Network and was meant to educate parents and other community members.

Gero spoke to high school students about the impact of such products on the brain and other consequences during physical education classes. She was to talk to more classes Thursday.

Before the seminar, Gero, a tobacco program consultant for hospitals and other healthcare organizations in central New York, said some students openly admitted to vaping when she spoke to them. She said those conversations enforced to her how common it is.

"The biggest takeaway today was it is huge, larger than I ever thought it was," Gero said.

Vaping refers to inhaling and exhaling vapor made by an electronic cigarette or similar device that heats a substance such as nicotine without smoke or tar. E-cigarettes are a vaping device. Gero singled out the e-cigarette brand JUUL as being extremely popular among users. She noted JUUL devices look like flash drives and can be be extremely easy to conceal. A single JUUL cartridge is about the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, she said, noting that JUUL became more common in 2017.

Gero said she wanted to dispel the myth that vaping is a safer alternative to smoking. E-cigarettes can contain elements that can impede brain development, she said. She noted vaping liquids have additives that can create carcinogenic compounds when heated. While she noted many high school students vape, she said education for middle school students is especially important in order to try to reach them at a younger age.

High school principal Brian Morgan, who introduced the seminar, later said it is critical to educate students about vaping. He said it is important to try to appeal to students and to connect them to the health department or others who who can help them stop if they've started.

'School is a microcosm of what happens in a community, so we know that is an issue, in the community, in the county, all across the state and the country so we want to try and help students, educate them before they really get started in doing something like this," Morgan said. "In order to change behavior, you have to educate."

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.