Local schools confront vaping epidemic

ADDISON COUNTY — Parents, police and educators already have their hands full steering youths from using opioids, marijuana, tobacco and other potentially harmful substances on school grounds.
Now comes a new health threat that’s gaining alarming traction with children throughout the country, including here in Addison County: e-cigarettes, which produce an aerosol vapor — containing nicotine and other chemicals — that smokers inhale.
Infused with exotic flavors ranging from mango to crème brulée, e-cigarettes are giving young users the false impression they are engaging in a harmless alternative to conventional tobacco smoking. In reality, they’re plying their bodies with large doses of super-addictive nicotine known to be particularly detrimental to the developing brain.
“This is an addiction, and kids don’t realize what it does,” said Brooke Jette, prevention specialist for Middlebury Union High School, which has seen a major uptick this year in students’ use of e-cigarettes. And vaping has become popular among all socio-economic groups at school.
“It’s also the athletes,” Jette said. “Kids who would never entertain the idea of smoking cigarettes are Juuling.”
“Juul” has become one of the more popular vaping devices, in part because it’s compact and easy to hide.
A Juul e-cigarette cartridge (also known as a “pod”) gives the smoker around 200 puffs and transmits about as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Nicotine use during adolescence and young adulthood has been associated with lasting cognitive and behavioral impairments, including effects on working memory and attention, according to the American Lung Association. In high enough doses, nicotine is also a poison — children have been harmed or even died from drinking e-cigarette liquid, according to the American Lung Association.
In addition to being harmful, vaping isn’t cheap.
Online, a Juul device kit costs $34.99, and a four-pack of pods costs $15.99.
You must be at least 18 years old to buy e-cigarettes.
Area schools have woven possession and use of e-cigarettes into their respective tobacco bans. MUHS Principal Bill Lawson said, “Clearly, we’ve seen a shift from kids who were concerned about using cigarettes, to now using this vaping technology.”
Lawson said MUHS staff have the authority to permanently confiscate e-cigarettes from those possessing the devices on campus.
Vermont police can issue a civil ticket, carrying a $25 fine, to juveniles found in possession of vaping supplies — the same penalty for being a minor in possession of tobacco.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said his officers have issued 13 tickets thus far to local minors caught with tobacco or vaping devices. Police ticketed three MUHS students on Monday for e-cigarette-related offenses, according to Hanley.
He’s concerned about both the health impacts and the versatility of e-cigarettes, in terms of their ability to convey a variety of dangerous substances in varying concentrations.
“You can condense the dose, and that’s inherently dangerous,” Hanley said.
“Hopefully it’s a passing fad that will start to go away.”
But for now, vaping is on the rise, according to the results of the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey issued by the FDA:
•  Approximately 1.5 million more students used e-cigarettes this year, compared to last year.
•  Around 21 percent of high school students surveyed nationwide confessed to using e-cigarettes in 2018, compared to 11.7 percent in 2017. That’s a 78-percent increase.
•  Approximately 5 percent of middle school students surveyed nationwide admitted to using e-cigarettes this year, up from 3.3 percent in 2017. That’s a 48-percent surge.
What’s particularly discouraging to state and federal health care officials is that students’ use of tobacco had been in steady decline since 2015, ebbing to a low of 19 percent for high schoolers and 5 percent for middle schoolers in 2017. Vaping is now reversing the healthful trend.
“Many people who vape end up going to cigarettes,” Hanley noted.
Jette said she and other MUHS officials began to notice sporadic e-cigarette use among students last year, but added the activity increased greatly this spring with the advent of Juul technology. She believes the Addison Central School District students’ use of e-cigarettes is mirroring the nationwide trend.
And that’s not good.
“I know from talking to my colleagues throughout the state… that (vaping) is a pretty common phenomenon that all of a sudden happened because of the availability of this new technology,” Lawson said. “Clearly, we’ve seen a shift from kids who were concerned about using cigarettes, to now using this vaping technology.”
The schools have found an ally in Jesse Brooks, Addison County prevention coordinator based at the United Way in Middlebury.
Brooks on Nov. 14 met in Vergennes with representatives of all three county high schools and the Vermont Department of Health to discuss strategies for attacking the vaping issue.
Participating at that meeting was Ryan Cornellier, Mount Abraham Union High School’s health and wellness coordinator. He estimates as much as 60 percent of the Mount Abe student population could be using e-cigarettes.
Other disturbing trends, according to officials at the Nov. 14 meeting:
•  Youths are using the SnapChat social media platform to communicate and plan e-cigarette use, in terms of who has a device and where they will meet for a vaping session.
•  Students are finding it easy to hide their vaping devices while in school. Some clothing manufacturers are making it harder by outfitting some of their garments with inconspicuous e-cigarette pouches and pockets.
•  Students are buying e-cigarettes and cartridges online, including on eBay, while also asking older friends to buy supplies at local stores.
Cornellier has recently seen 7th- and 8th-graders ask older students to either use their e-cigarettes or get info on where to purchase them. So he’s concerned about the potential for an ongoing stream of students hooked on vaping.
Like Hanley, he’s concerned about e-cigarettes’ versatility. He said he’s already heard of cases of students Juuling THC oil. THC is the chemical in cannabis that creates the “high.” And Vermont has now legalized possession of small quantities of pot.
Mount Abraham, Middlebury and Vergennes union high schools are all taking steps to battle the e-cigarette problem on their respective campuses. The dangers of vaping are being explained in health classes, and schools are sending related information home to parents through newsletters. School assemblies are in the works to further impress upon students the health consequences and illegality of using e-cigarettes.
Cornellier on Tuesday confirmed Mount Abe has been accepted to participate in “Second Chance,” a program created by the Colorado Department of Public Health. Second Chance is a web-based tobacco education program for middle and high school kids who have violated their school’s or community’s tobacco or e-cigarette policy. It is a free online, interactive and self-directed offering intended to be used as an alternative to suspension, according to the program literature.
Second Chance, Cornellier believes, could initially be made mandatory for Mount Abe’s smoking/vaping offenders, but a version of it could become a helpful informational tool for the entire student body
Mount Abe officials will vet the Second Chance program before using it, according to Cornellier, who’s also creating an informational slide show about vaping and e-cigarettes that he’ll make available to parents during parent-teacher conferences next spring.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said he’s been alerted to a few cases of e-cigarette use at VUHS, but called the number of transgressions “very minimal.”
That said, Merkel knows the number of people caught isn’t necessarily a true reflection of the problem.
“We know it’s going on,” he said, adding, “this doesn’t bode well, because it is easy to mask what you’re doing with an e-cigarette.”
Brooks believes VUHS officials have done a good job ensuring students don’t have many opportunities to secretly smoke or vape during the school day. Classes are tightly scheduled and restrooms are shared by students and staff, according to Brooks.
She’s recently been given a big assist to local e-cigarette elimination efforts, in the form of a $4,500 grant to each of the high schools and Middlebury Union Middle School to create local programming.
“This is very much a grassroots effort and there will be a lot of trial and error,” Brooks said.
The goal, she said, is to “weed out what does and doesn’t work and make the (successful) programs part of a future strategic plan” to combat the vaping problem.
Hanley is many hoping the schools’ e-cigarette programs are successful.
“Any time you get young people addicted to something, it creates its own set of problems,” Hanley said.
“The healthier the town, the more peaceful the town.”

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