Much progress has been made in recent years in reducing the number of teens who smoke cigarettes. The CDC reports from 2011 to 2018, cigarette smoking went down among middle and high school students; middle school students who smoked decreased 4.3%, and the rate of high school students who smoked cigarettes decreased 15.8%. However, this positive news is dampened by what the CDC states is an epidemic of students using e-cigarettes.
Nationally, news reports and social media sites are reporting widespread use of e-cigarettes, popularly known as “vape pens”, by students in schools, including bathrooms and classrooms. This nationwide trend has been felt locally, and Grain Valley schools have seen a marked increase in the number of incidents involving e-cigarettes in the past year.
According to Grain Valley Schools, incidents at the high school are more than twice as high as of February 26th as all last year (9 incidents in 2017-18 vs. 20 incidents as of February 26th for this school year). At the middle school level, there were 6 total incidents in the 2017-18 school year vs. 6 incidents occurring in the first six months of this school year.
“This year, we have seen an increase in the use of vape products (especially the JUUL). I believe the reasons for the quick increase is the marketing of the products (flavors such as mango, cotton candy, watermelon), the ease of access to the devices and the juice, as well as the ease of hiding the devices and the use of the device. While there is a certain stigma to smoking cigarettes, it appears that vaping is much more acceptable to teenagers. ’It isn't as bad as smoking’ is what I have heard from several students,” Mike Tarrants, Assistant Principal, Grain Valley High School said.
School administrators and health officials are finding that many parents are not aware of what e-cigarettes look like, how they are used, and the dangers they pose to developing brains and bodies. Likewise, students do not have an understanding of the effects of e-cigarette use on their bodies, and the products do not have the same negative stigma among teens as smoking cigarettes.
So, what is vaping or JUULing?
Vaping or JUULing are terms used for using an e-cigarette. E-cigarettes are electronic devices that heat a liquid and produce an aerosol mix of nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals. Users inhale e-cigarette aerosol into their lungs. Bystanders can also breathe in this aerosol as the user exhales it into the air.
E-cigarettes are known by many different names, including “e-cigs”, “mods”, “vape pens”, “vapes”, “tank systems”, and by one of the most popular brand names among teens, “JUUL”.
While e-cigarettes come in many shapes and sizes, most have a battery, a heating element, and a place to hold a liquid. The liquid is sometimes called “e-juice”, “e-liquid”, “vape juice”, or “vape liquid”. E-cigarette devices can also be used to deliver marijuana and other drugs. While some e-cigarettes look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, some are made to look like USB flash drives, pens, and other everyday items.
What are the health risks of vaping?
Ray Dlugolecki, MPH, Community Health Department Manager with the Jackson County Health Department, says neither parents nor teens have a clear understanding of the health effects of the use of these products.
“Youth and young adults are uniquely at risk for long-term, long-lasting effects of exposing their brains to nicotine. These new e-cigarettes, like JUUL, often deliver a higher dose of nicotine to users than even traditional cigarettes. Nicotine addiction, mood disorders, and permanent lowering of impulse control are all possible outcomes of prolonged use. Nicotine also changes the way synapses in the brain are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning,” Dlugolecki said.
“I think there is a general lack of knowledge from parents and teens that adds to the danger of these products. These products are built around addicting as many people as possible – similar to that of cigarettes. In fact, some of the same actors responsible for manufacturing tobacco products that have killed upwards of 20 million Americans have jumped at the opportunity to get on the e-cigarette bandwagon. With a lack of long-term studies on health impacts, teens today will be the data points we will be talking about relating to illness and potentially death in the future.”
How are e-cigarettes impacting schools and student learning?
The increase in vaping/JUULing among teens has been felt at schools across the country, creating issues related to student behavior, disruptions in student learning, and the need to increase teacher and administrator training to identify vaping products and their use.
“Issues surrounding vaping/JUULing at South Middle School are not significant, but I believe the use of the devices occurs more than teachers and administrators are aware. Over the past year, the accessibility to such devices has increased dramatically, and there does not seem to be a negative stigma to the use, as there may have been with smoking a cigarette,” Brandyn Harmon, Assistant Principal, Grain Valley South Middle School said.
“Because of this, it is important to be proactive in educating students, staff, and parents. In order to combat the rise of e-cigarette devices among Grain Valley middle schoolers, a portion of our health program involves our School Resource Officers utilizing the Truth About Drugs program to teach students about the health risks associated with the use of vapes/JUULs.”
The consequences of vaping/JUULing at school are not limited to health risks.
“At the high school, consequences are as follows: a 1st offense results in 3 days of In-school or Out-of-School suspension. 2nd and subsequent offenses increase in the number of days of out-of-school suspension. In some cases, we will limit the student's ability to travel during class time and set alternative passing periods,” Tarrants said.
What can parents do/what signs should they look out for when it comes to their teen?
“I believe the most important thing that parents can do is to educate themselves on vaping and JUULing. The US Surgeon General has a great resource for parents that provides information as well as tips for parents on how to have a conversation with their student about the effects of vaping/JUULing,” Mark Lyford, Grain Valley North Middle School Assistant Principal/Middle School Activities Director said.
“I also believe it is important for parents to familiarize themselves with the products and then have open/honest conversations with their students about the potential dangers and why it's important not to use them. Parents should also remain active in their child's life by asking questions about/knowing their friends and frequently checking their electronic devices and social media accounts.”
Dlugolecki suggests three steps parents need to take to address to the issue with their child:
1. Talk to your kids about the risks of using e-cigarettes, including what’s known and not known.
“Begin an open and honest dialogue with kids about e-cigarettes, the potential dangers and why it’s important they not use them. If you need an assist, your teen’s doctor is a great option,” Dlugolecki said.
2. Raise your antenna/familiarize yourself with the products.
“This crisis has reached a level where some youth are actively using devices at school under direct supervision and getting away with it.”
3. Help your teen quit if necessary.
“If you discover your teen is actively using e-cigarettes or any tobacco products, get them the help they need. Call the national quitline number at 1-800-QUIT-NOW as a starting point. Remember these products achieve success through addicting people, so quitting cold turkey may not always be an option.”
What can communities do to address the issue of teens and vaping/JUULing?
“Many communities throughout the nation are altering their existing clean indoor air policies for smoking to include the use of e-cigarettes. The City of Grain Valley does not currently have even a clean indoor air policy in place, so exploring opportunities to implement such a policy would be a good first step,” Dlugolecki said. “Communities can also explore opportunities to increase the age of sale for tobacco products and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. This move would limit the exposure to nicotine on developing brains in the community.”