Student Well-Being

Schools Are Installing Vape Detectors and Using Juul Settlement Money to Pay for It

By Caitlynn Peetz — April 19, 2023 5 min read
Wellness Center nurse Lynda Boyer-Chu holds a Juul vaporizer and cartridge she uses to help teach students the dangers of vaping, in her office at Washington High School in San Francisco, Calif, on Thursday, September 5, 2019.
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More school districts are turning to a technology that detects chemicals from e-cigarettes in the air and notifies school staff that students could be vaping.

In recent weeks, a number of districts have said they plan to buy and install the vapor detection devices. And some say they plan to use money from legal settlements with the e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs to fund the purchases.

Juul in recent months has reached settlements with states, school districts, and others under which it will reportedly pay out more than $2 billion.

Districts for years have been scrambling to address teens’ e-cigarette use, drawing on an assortment of measures, from education campaigns about vaping’s negative health impacts to e-cigarette buy-back programs.

The schools that have decided to install vapor-detecting devices are putting them in areas where e-cigarette use is most common, like bathrooms.

Last September, Juul reached a nearly $440 million settlement with 34 states and territories after an investigation into the San Francisco company’s marketing and sales practices.

Most recently, on April 12, Juul agreed to pay $462 million to six states and Washington, D.C., according to the Associated Press.

That’s on top of a $1.2 billion the company reportedly agreed to in December to resolve about 10,000 lawsuits that included claims from school districts, tribes, and individuals, according to Bloomberg News.

“Juul lit a nationwide public health crisis by putting addictive products in the hands of minors and convincing them that it’s harmless,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement when the April 12 settlement was announced. “Today they are paying the price for the harm they caused.”

Districts using awards to fund anti-vaping measures

As the settlement funds trickle in, some districts are announcing they’ll use their shares on efforts to combat vaping.

Many—including districts in Orlando, Fla.; Coldwater, Mich.; Spokane, Wash.; and Karns City and Seneca Valley, Pa.—have said in recent weeks they plan to purchase and install vape detectors.

Montgomery County, Md., schools recently announced they will pilot the installation of the detectors in five of the 160,000-student district’s 26 high schools.

The Montgomery County district, among the largest in the country, expects to receive money from a recent settlement with Juul and will also use it for initiatives and educational programs about vaping and nicotine addiction, according to a statement from spokesperson Chris Cram.

Alpena Public Schools in Michigan plan to use recently acquired settlement money to fund the purchase and installation of vape detectors.

The district of about 3,500 students will install the more than 30 new detectors throughout its two middle schools and two high schools in the coming weeks. The plan is to place them in bathrooms and other areas where students congregate, district spokesperson Lee Fitzpatrick said.

The goal is both to detect when students are using vapor products and to discourage their use altogether, he said.

E-cigarettes expose their users’ lungs to a variety of carcinogens and toxic chemicals, both from the vapor and the vaping device itself, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. E-cigarettes have also been associated with lung illnesses.

Young people, whose brains are still developing, are at particular risk from vaping, as the nicotine they’re exposed to can affect the development of brain circuits that control attention and learning, according to the national institute.

Even students who don’t use the products are affected, because they feel like they have to avoid the bathrooms where other students vape, Fitzpatrick said.

“I think [the detectors] are a reaction to a real problem that has multiple levels and impacts a lot of people,” he said.

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 14 percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students reported that they had vaped in the past 30 days. Among those students, 42 percent said they were vaping frequently (meaning 20 of the last 30 days) and nearly 28 percent saying they were using e-cigarettes daily.

Fitzpatrick declined to say how much money the district has spent on the vapor detection devices, citing conditions of the settlement with Juul that prevent districts from disclosing the amount they’ve received.

The devices look similar to traditional smoke detectors but don’t emit loud tones when vape chemicals are detected. Instead, they silently alert designated staff with a text message identifying where the vapor was detected.

Alpena administrators are still determining which staff will be tasked with responding, but it will likely include principals, school resource officers, and school-based security, Fitzpatrick said.

While the driving force behind the vapor detectors is to address vaping, they have other features.

By monitoring the air, the detectors can also notify staff of significant changes in temperature that could happen in the case of a fire and humidity from, for example, a broken pipe. They can also notify staff of loud noises such as gunshots or fights, and tell them where the sound came from.

“The primary objective is, obviously, to combat the vaping,” Fitzpatrick said, “but there are several other layers to these things that will benefit our schools.”

Detectors aren’t foolproof

Some districts that have installed vape detectors have found their effectiveness to be limited. The detectors can go off, but students are nowhere in sight when administrators arrive to investigate. Or students find ways to circumvent them by exhaling into the toilet, then flushing, or into their sleeves, according to Wired.

It takes more than the detectors alone to keep students from vaping, Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist at Stanford, told Wired.

More important is educating students about the risks of vaping, and providing counseling and resources to address addiction, districts with comprehensive anti-vaping efforts in place told the magazine.

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