Virginia school leaders fight teen vaping through education
BRISTOL, Va. (AP) — When Marlin Goff attended school resource officer training in Hampton, Virginia, a few years ago, he heard a presentation on the rising number of teens using vapes — electronic cigarettes that heat what's usually a nicotine-containing liquid to produce an aerosol the user inhales.
"They said if you haven't seen it yet, it's coming your way," said Goff, who works as Virginia High School's SRO.
Vaping wasn't an issue at Virginia High at the time, he said, but "lo and behold, we started the school year in August a couple years ago and started seeing vapes."
It's a similar story at the middle and high schools on both sides of the state border, where school officials said in the last two years they've seen students coming to school with vapes and e-cigarettes, often using them in bathrooms and sometimes sharing them.
A plastic bottle of strawberry-flavored liquid with a neon pink label, clear containers of "strawberry custard" and lemonade e-cigarette juices and a handful of vaping devices that look like USB flash drives are among the contraband Goff confiscated from students in recent months.
Bristol, Virginia, and Bristol, Tennessee, schools prohibit tobacco and e-cigarette products on their campuses, and students possessing them or using them face a range of potential disciplinary actions, including in- and out-of-school suspension, as well as referrals to the juvenile court systems and tobacco intervention classes. Administrators also involve school resource officers when handling vaping cases.
Amid heightened concerns over what health officials consider to be an epidemic of youth e-cigarette use and recent cases across the country of severe lung illnesses that have been linked to vaping, school officials say they're working to educate students and families about the dangers of the nicotine products. The precise cause of the illnesses is still unknown, although patients in many cases used products containing THC, the ingredient in marijuana that causes a high.
"I think it's generally understood to most kids that tobacco is bad news, so that if a student was to bring a cigarette and smoke it in the bathroom, most students would stay away from that," said Joshua Stamper, assistant principal at Virginia Middle School.
But he finds that vaping — which often uses appealing flavors — doesn't have the same kind of stigma attached to it.
"A lot of times what we have is it's not just one student — one student will bring the device in and then they'll share with their friends because it's way more appealing and doesn't seem quite as bad to them as traditional tobacco products," Stamper said.
In a national survey, more than one in four students in the 12th grade, one in five in the 10th grade and one in 11 in the eighth grade reported vaping in the past 30 days, according to data from government-supported research published earlier this month by the New England Journal of Medicine.
The same survey found that nearly 12% of high school seniors reported vaping daily, with lower numbers of daily use of about 7% of 10th graders and 2% of eighth graders — figures that "suggest the development of nicotine addiction," the researchers wrote.
School officials haven't collected vaping data locally, with the exception of Tennessee High School, which surveyed juniors and seniors this school year. Of the 333 respondents, 16% reported having used e-cigarettes, 76% of those said they tried to quit, and 31% of those who tried to quit were unable to. Of the students who vaped, two-thirds said they did not use any other tobacco products before vaping.
Figures like these are concerning to public health and school officials, who note that although e-cigarettes are touted as a way to help adults quit smoking traditional cigarettes, there are young people vaping who did not smoke or have a nicotine addiction before they picked up e-cigarette products like the Juul. The popular brand of e-cigarette products can have as much nicotine in a single pod as a pack of 20 cigarettes, according to data cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tennessee High reports it dealt with 68 tobacco offenses in the 2018-19 school year, the "vast majority" of which involved e-cigarette possession — a large increase from 15 infractions the previous year, according to numbers shared at a forum earlier this month.
Just down the road at Vance Middle School in Bristol, Tennessee, officials handled eight vaping-related infractions last year and have seen only a "handful" this school year, according to school Principal Amy Scott.
Virginia High School had around 30 cases last year and has seen about 10 so far this school year, according to estimates from Goff, the school resource officer. Stamper said Virginia Middle School had nine vaping cases last year and one so far this fall.
Officials at all four schools said the number of infractions they deal with are likely an undercount of the number of students who have actually used e-cigarette products.
"We're not going to try to hide it — we're going to be honest about it," Tennessee High's principal, Kim Kirk, said about issues surrounding youth vaping.
Kirk said she thinks the number of infractions will go down at Tennessee High this year due to more conversations about e-cigarettes, increased monitoring and stricter policies.
The substances in vapes are now being tested after concerns of THC being used in some of the devices. Marijuana is illegal in Tennessee and Virginia and the school has a zero tolerance policy for drugs, Kirk said. A student found guilty of a zero tolerance offense faces suspension/expulsion, according to Tennessee High School's student handbook.
School leaders suggested various ways they'd like to see youth e-cigarette use addressed, including product bans, restrictions on how vaping products are marketed and more accountability for retailers — although they said teens often get vapes from people they know, like friends and family.
This past summer, Virginia raised its minimum purchase age for tobacco and nicotine products from 18-21, although it's legal for 18-year-olds to buy the products in Tennessee. And the federal government announced plans earlier this month to prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarette products, with an exception for tobacco flavors.
Employees and owners of vape shops in the Bristol area oppose what they're calling a "flavor ban" — which they say could put them out of business — but several said they're supportive of efforts to limit teenagers' access to the products with a 21-year-old minimum purchase age and other approaches, like marketing standards. But even though employees at several stores say they check IDs and don't think young people should start vaping in the first place, some said they think there's a bit of inevitability to teens experimenting with different substances and they see vapes an alternative to cigarettes.
"If young people are going to do it, they're going to do it — whether they can get their older siblings to do it, their parents to do it for them, it's going to happen," said Bobby Harbuck, an assistant manager at Vapor 42 in Bristol, Virginia. "We don't want to see the youth vaping, but I would much rather see them vaping than smoking. It's coming to terms with reality. The reality is people who are underage are going to do things that they shouldn't be doing. And if they're going to do it, at least let it be something that is a healthier alternative."
But some health officials question whether vape products are a "healthier alternative" to smoking, especially as investigations continue into the recent respiratory illnesses. They want teenagers to completely avoid nicotine, which can negatively affect adolescent brain development.
"Our perspective is we don't want them to do any of these products," said Darlene Becker, the coordinating school nurse for Bristol Virginia Public Schools.
Scott, the principal at Vance Middle School, said it's going to take time for the culture around vaping to change, but she thinks adults — from teachers and coaches to parents and youth ministers — should still work to influence young people's choices.
"By and large, adolescents still want to make somebody proud. They still want us to believe in them, so it's important that we're clear about our stance because that's a way to impact student choice," she said.
She added, "If we could just get kids to understand that this particular choice comes with multiple penalties — a school penalty, a juvenile court penalty and an addiction. That's a lot for a 13-year-old."
Information from: Bristol Herald Courier, http://www.bristolnews.com