U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden visited Bend on Friday to hear what local high school students had to say about vaping in their schools — and they didn’t hold back.

E-cigarettes have become an everyday part of teen life, despite their health risks, they said.

“If one person starts doing it, then a lot of people start doing it,” said Bend High School sophomore Campbell Dixon, 16. “And if you’re not doing it in your group, then you’re not cool, I guess.”

Dixon was one of seven Central Oregon teens who met with Wyden, state Rep. Cheri Helt and local health and education leaders to discuss why students are becoming more drawn to e-cigarettes like Juul, a popular e-cigarette brand, and to come up with strategies to limit teen vaping.

The Democratic senator’s Bend visit followed one in Eugene on Wednesday, when high school students said more than 40% of their peers in Lane County used e-cigarettes.

The meeting in Bend took place as concern over vaping has reached a crisis point. Eight cases of respiratory illness associated with vaping, two resulting in deaths, have been reported in Oregon, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

And Gov. Kate Brown imposed a statewide six-month ban on selling flavored vaping products.

Wyden — who called teen vaping a “four-alarm health care fire” Friday — has introduced legislation to put a federal sales tax on e-cigarettes. He told the group that vaping is another way for tobacco companies to hook teens on nicotine products, just like with traditional cigarettes in the past.

“We’ve got a new generation of nicotine users that’s been created virtually overnight,” Wyden said. “E-cigarette companies, in my view, have worked very hard to create a strategy so their product would be an easy on-ramp for kids to use cigarettes, as well.”

Anne-Marie Schmidt, assistant principal at La Pine High School, told Wyden that her school has caught 20 students vaping or possessing e-cigarettes since September.

Summit High School sophomore Gabriella Shirtcliff said vaping has become a casual activity for teens at her school.

“It’s become a thing (where) you go and hang out with your friends, and someone has a Juul, and it’s passed around,” said Gabriella, 15.

Students told Wyden that a major reason their classmates vape is that the sweet, candylike flavors can make e-cigarettes seem harmless compared to traditional tobacco products.

“When you have these flavors that are light and cute-sounding, it doesn’t feel like it’s actually going to be harmful,” said Marly Howell, a 15-year-old sophomore at Summit.

“By taking away those flavors, you all of a sudden lose the drive of what made that interesting.”

Wyden agreed, telling Marly, “I may need you to come back to the Senate and say exactly that.”

Wyden said he wanted a permanent ban on flavored e-cigarettes.

“The flavored products have been so dangerous, because if you get a kid hooked on creme brulee or some other flavor, then tobacco companies and the e-cigarette companies are looking at somebody who’s going to be addicted, possibly for many years,” he said.

Abby Francis, a sophomore at Bend High School, said some students have heard the horror stories of vaping-related deaths, but they think it doesn’t impact them.

“People say ... ‘I don’t vape as much as they do. I only do it during social occasions, don’t worry about it,’” Abby, 15, said.

Although the minimum age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, is 21 in Oregon, students, educators and health experts said it wasn’t difficult for teens to start vaping. Schmidt, La Pine High School’s assistant principal, said some parents will buy their kids e-cigarettes because they believe it’s a healthier substitute for chewing tobacco or traditional cigarettes. Heather Stuart, a prevention coordinator with the Crook County Health Department, said middle and high school students can easily buy e-cigarettes online and have them shipped to their homes.

Melia Cuevas, a senior at Bend High, told Wyden that one gas station in Sunriver has become infamous for selling e-cigarettes to minors.

“People who work there, they ask if you’re over 30. You can be 17 and say, ‘Yeah, I’m over 30,’ and they won’t question you,” said Melia, 17. “I know a group of people who go there every night and get alcohol and Juuls and all that.”

Robi Phinney, principal at La Pine Middle School, said one of her seventh-grade students, only 12 years old, was able to buy Juul products recently at a La Pine store.

An educational assembly focusing on health risks was offered as a solution, but the students warned Wyden that an assembly, especially if its just adults lecturing kids, might not be as effective as students having one-on-one conversations about vaping with their peers.

“The amount of kids who skip assemblies in the first place … it just speaks to the ‘I don’t want to be there, I don’t want to listen to the man’ kind of thing,” Gabriella said.

Wyden agreed, remembering how health groups wanted him to make anti-tobacco ads in the 1990s.

“The last thing you want to do is have a senator-type person, in a blue suit and a red tie, go, ‘No, no, no, it’s bad for students,’” Wyden said.

At the end of the meeting, Wyden called upon Central Oregon’s students, educators and health officials to spread the word about the dangers of teen vaping.

“We have a choice: We can either have preventive efforts work … or we can just wait for the health consequences, and play catch-up ball with people’s lives,” he told the group.

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com