Joe Camel died more than 20 years ago, but the tobacco mascot's child-enticing spirit has hauntingly returned in the form of vaping — the growing use of e-cigarettes.

The stunning fact is, vaping is more prevalent among teens than tobacco use: While less than a quarter of Kansas and Missouri high school students use tobacco, about a third acknowledges having vaped, though estimates say it's closer to half.

Every parent needs to be alerted to this rising epidemic and to vaping's seductiveness, addictiveness and cryptic dangers, which are showing up in the heartland in alarming ways. Eerie cases of unspecified vaping-related breathing disorders have recently been identified in at least three Kansas young adults, to go with some 200 similar cases nationwide, according to the state's Department of Health and Environment.

These are just the acute cases we know about. How many are going unreported? And how much long-term damage might vaping be doing to youths? Besides the ill effects that are known, including those of nicotine, Johns Hopkins Medicine clinical researcher Dr. Michael Blaha warns, "You're exposing yourself to all kinds of chemicals that we don't yet understand and that are probably not safe."

It may be a legal, albeit uncharted, adult pursuit often marketed as a way to quit tobacco. But vaping is not a government-approved smoking cessation method, and, in fact, Johns Hopkins says most who try to use it for that end up smoking both e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes anyway.

What's far worse is the wrenching grip that vaping is getting on kids, which is happening faster than schools and school districts can respond with code-of-conduct changes, health services and information for parents and students.

"It is an epidemic," Shelby Rebeck, director of health services for the Shawnee Mission School District, told KCTV-5. "We're so behind in responding to this. I think our kids are already physically addicted by the time we're trying to address it."

That's because vaping is easier to cloak than smoking and because vaping is being picked up as early as middle and grade school.

The best that can be said for vaping is that it exposes users to fewer toxic chemicals. Faint praise, certainly. But any mistaken notion that it's just water vapor is as harmful as the toxins that accompany it. Even the innocent-sounding e-cigarette flavorings that appeal particularly to the young — cinnamon, vanilla, buttered popcorn and such — can themselves be toxic when inhaled, and impair lungs, blood vessels and more. And researchers still don't even know all the possible ill effects of vaping.

Schools and school districts must be more vigilant and proactive than ever this year in policing the grounds and helping students caught up in this destructive trap while preventing others from falling into it.

The Kansas State Board of Education has formed a public-private, multi-agency task force to promote and track anti-vaping efforts in schools and in their health curricula. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment, a member of the task force, has a "Vape-Free Schools Toolkit" online — something that schools and parents should both make use of.

Yet, doesn't the state need more laws? While nearly 25 cities and counties in Kansas have bumped up the legal age for nicotine products to 21 — including Kansas City, Kansas, Johnson County and Douglas County — the Legislature needs to do the same and more statewide to curtail this epidemic.

A lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association is absolutely right that educators and administrators need rapt attention and support from parents and policymakers on this crisis.

Educating our young has always started with parents, and there has rarely been a more urgent need for them to engage and inform their kids than now.

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