At area high schools, educators try to catch up with vaping craze

Monitor staff
Published: 12/8/2018 8:42:18 PM

Allyssa Thompson sees the growing number of New Hampshire teenagers inhaling e-cigarettes, the incorrect perceptions of parents and the way schools have struggled to get a handle on the issue.

Now, she’s trying to reinforce to students, parents and educators the same messages that made smoking unpopular among young people: it’s costly, it’s addictive and it can hurt you later in life.

“The perception that these were safer than cigarettes was becoming more and more apparent,” said Thompson, director of programs for Breathe NH. “Parents were grateful that their kids weren’t smoking cigarettes, so some were looking at the issue as, ‘Okay well vaping is safer than smoking.’ ”

Those misconceptions, along with requests for help from schools, led Thompson and Breathe NH to develop a program that it has brought to several schools around the state about the impact of vaping.

“What was once an issue a couple of years ago with one or two isolated cases was becoming a daily or weekly occurrence,” Thompson said. “The perception of harm was really low. School staff needed to understand the issue as far as what are these kids are doing and what it is.”

E-cigarettes emit a less detectable smell than traditional cigarettes, the devices come in various shapes and sizes and are hard to spot. Despite schools policies banning the use of all nicotine products, many students were vaping on campus, notably in the bathrooms.

Different products offer different appeals and perceptual problems.

Juul emerged in the growing electronic cigarette market in 2017, as the company advertised that it was trying to improve the lives of the adult smokers.

While the product has led many cigarette smokers to kick the habit and pick up one of the San Francisco-based company’s sleek devices, critics say Juul has also played a major role in developing nicotine addiction among teenagers across the country.

Because the devices are perceived as a safer alternative to smoking, many underage users are trying the devices who would never have smoked a cigarette.

“There’s this generation of kids between 15 and not even 18 years old who have never smoked cigarettes before – I’d say they’re using these (to get) a head rush because there is so much nicotine,” said Nick Filter, 19, who switched from cigarettes to vaping about three years ago. “It kind of makes you lightheaded, like when you smoke a lot of tobacco and get that fuzzy feeling. A lot of kids are using high-nicotine (juices and products) to get that kind of feeling.”

The vaping trend has become exceedingly apparent in New Hampshire high schools, where administrators and health officials are trying to catch up with the craze and educate students on the possible risks of vaping.

Data gathered by the state Department of Health and Human Services show that nearly one in four high school students used or had used vaping devices last year. The report also stated that vaping among high-school aged youths is double that of cigarette smoking.

Show on the road

The program developed by Breathe New Hampshire came to Hopkinton Middle/High School in November.

Like other educators, Assistant Principal Rebecca Gagnon noted the trend had become more visible around the Hopkinton campus during the last academic year.

“A couple of years ago it was more one-off here and there,” she said. “Last year it was definitely trending, which we just needed to be aware of.”

That led to an increase in faculty presence in the hallways between class periods, sometimes checking in the bathrooms where most students will go to vape. In Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reported a growing number of schools are considering installing sensors in the bathrooms to detect e-cigarette vapor.

Hopkinton students caught vaping on campus are sent to the principal’s office where their device may be confiscated. At Concord High, the student-parent handbook outlines penalties for vaping where a student can be suspended for up to 10 days if caught using a device on campus.

Juul devices are more difficult for teachers and parents to detect compared other vaping products because of their minimalist design, which looks very similar to a USB flash drive and was nicknamed the iPhone of e-cigarettes.

Other common vaping products are shaped like a cylinder with a holding tank for users to fill and re-fill with “e-juice.” The juice, which includes liquid nicotine as well as other flavoring ingredients, is heated and produces vapor for the user to inhale.

Juul, on the other hand, uses a system where the e-juice is pre-packaged in small pods that slip into the mouthpiece of the device. Juul pods are offered in 3 percent and 5 percent nicotine strengths in the U.S.

In September, the federal Food and Drug Administration stated that the number of teens using e-cigarettes has reached “an epidemic proportion” and rolled out new enforcement efforts to curb the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. The FDA’s initiative was spurred by government data reporting a 77 percent increase of e-cigarette use among high school-aged teens and a 50 percent uptick among middle schoolers this year – an increase from 1 million in 2017 to 3.5 million in 2018.

In response, Juul announced in November that it would suspend sales of most of its fruit-flavored pods. The company also suspended its Instagram account where it frequently posted images of young people stylishly vaping while hanging out with friends. Those images were all removed, leaving one lone post explaining that the account will no longer be active.

“Our intent was never to have youth use Juul,” Kevin Burns, chief executive of Juul Labs, wrote in an email to news outlets in September. “But intent is not enough. The numbers are what matter and the numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarettes is a problem.”

‘I need to stop doing this’

Juul’s announcement that it would pull back on its fruit flavors spurred a flurry of business as retailers clamored to order as much of the remaining flavored pods as they could, and users stocked up on their favorites before they were gone.

At New York Smoke and Vape Shop on Loudon Road, owner Virender Yadav said the mango pods are the top-seller among the Juul flavors. An authorized retailer of Juul products, Yadav got on the phone with his distributor and ordered extra cases of the mango flavor before the inventory ran out.

“We already have a clientele coming here,” Yadav said. “They don’t care about the FDA and Juul … They need a product.”

The store has signs posted on its front door and throughout the showroom telling customers to have their ID ready and that they must be 18 or older to be inside.

Filter, one of the store’s employees, doesn’t use Juul; he uses a different pod system. The device he used before that was one that allowed him to increase the power heating the juice and emit a stronger force of vapor.

“If you’re vaping 100 watts and you’re vaping for solid hours, that’s putting a lot into your lungs,” he said while puffing on a vape at the store last week. “I used 120 watts for like two weeks. I got to a point where I couldn’t breathe and was like ‘I need to stop doing this.’ ”

There is still much unknown about the health effects of vaping. Officials with Breathe NH were hesitant to say e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes but “they may be less harmful.” The organization is more concerned with nicotine addiction developing in young adults through these products.

“Nicotine is a trigger like other substances for young people because your brain is still developing until you are 25,” said Kim Coronis, policy and program manager for Breathe NH. “Nicotine triggers that reward center of the brain … that’s why the potential for a young person to get hooked on this stuff is higher versus an adult.”

Back at Hopkinton High, educators hope students consider the possible risks of the vaping craze.

“They’re guinea pigs in this case, and we don’t want them to be guinea pigs,” Gagnon said. “It’s important to us that our kids aren’t that way.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321 or
nstoico@cmonitor.com.)




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