ST. LOUIS — Vaping is increasing among students in the St. Louis region. For Belleville East High School, the problem grew so large Principal Josh Lane said the school added vaping to the health class curriculum.

“What we're seeing is it's a challenge for us,” Lane said.

About 3% of adults vape, according the CDC. For high school students, that number is at more than 25% and growing. While Belleville East is trying to help students quit, the FDA caught three stores selling vape products to underage kids about a mile away from the high school’s campus.

Belleville East High School is not alone. FDA records obtained by 5 On Your Side show that 226 businesses in the region were found to be selling vaping products to minors, all but five were within a few miles of a school.

“It's very much that it's a race that we're trying to keep up with and be on the front end,” Lane said.

A person must be 21 in Illinois and St. Louis County to buy e-cigarettes. In the rest of Missouri the age requirement is 18.

Vaping is to blame for more than 2,100 illnesses and at least 44 deaths across the country, including six in Missouri and Illinois, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

E-cigarettes typically contain nicotine, a substance that is highly addictive and can harm a developing adolescent’s brain. It can also prime the brain for addiction to other drugs.

“The bottom line for youth is there’s no redeeming aspects of e-cigarettes,” said Brian King, deputy director at the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.

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Erin Kelley runs Step Up St. Louis. The organization works in nine south St. Louis County school districts educating kids on the dangers of vaping.

Kelley said she speaks to about 20 to 30 kids a week who say they can't stop vaping. She said some of those children are as young as fourth and fifth graders.

“They have access to it all the time, and it's a true problem,” Kelley said. “Waking up in the morning, needing a nicotine device – that’s a huge issue. Their brains are actually addicted.”

Kelley said she was not surprised to see businesses were selling vaping products to underage kids. In fact, she thinks the setup is intentional. She said while a lot of retailers won't sell to minors, there are often a few in the community who will sell products to children.

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Principal Lane said the presence of shops selling products to kids around Belleville East is disappointing.

“Belleville is a community that we support. They support us,” Lane said. “We would hope that around our school is an area that everybody is going to support our young people and make sure that they have the best chance to be successful.”

Kelley said shops aren't the only way underage kids gain access to vaping. Older siblings, other kids and even parents will buy vaping products for minors.

Stress and peer pressure also contribute to the use of e-cigarettes, according to Kelley.

“So many kids tell me that they'll walk into a bathroom and they can't not use it if it's offered to them,” Kelley said.

You can check how close these stores are to your child's school with the interactive map below.

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