Student Vaping Concerns Grow

The Keene Sentinel
Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The juices come in flavors like cotton candy, strawberry lemonade and Key lime.

Most contain nicotine, and when heated, they all produce a mist typically called a “vapor.” The devices used to inhale them — commonly known as vapes, e-cigarettes, JUULs and mods — often are small enough to be easily concealed.

And that’s part of what makes them so difficult to spot on high school campuses.

In New Hampshire, it’s illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to own or use e-cigarettes and other electronic vapor products. But despite this, area high schools have seen what they consider to be a concerning trend of e-cigarette use among students.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which is available through the state health department’s Wisdom database, 18.3 percent of ninth- through 12th-graders in the greater Monadnock Region surveyed in 2017 said they had used an electronic vapor product at least once in the past 30 days.

Additionally, 36.78 percent of high schoolers in the region said they had used the products at least once in their lifetime, compared to 41.1 percent of high school students across the state.

Statewide, the percentage of high school students who had used the products at least once in the past 30 days dropped to 23.8 percent in 2017 from 25 percent in 2015, data show.

But at ConVal Regional High School in Peterborough, administrators have seen a jump in vaping-related incidents just in the past year, said Steve Bartsch, dean of students.

While there were eight vaping-related incidents in the 2016-17 school year — which could include using a vaping device, or simply having one, on campus — the school has seen 26 this school year, he said last week.

That’s partially because of new products coming out, such as JUULs, which are easily concealable and can be mistaken for pens or thumb drives, Bartsch said. And because the vapor dissipates quickly and leaves almost no odor, it can be difficult for teachers to notice.

The school changed its disciplinary policy for vaping this year, handing out suspensions in place of detentions, to try and deter students from using or having the devices on campus, Bartsch said.

“I think kids know it’s really harder to catch,” he said. “And I think the other thing that we’re struggling with, in the eyes of our students, is they don’t see it as anything wrong.”

According to Kate McNally, program manager for the Cheshire Coalition for Tobacco-Free Communities, vaping among youth is an issue that’s been on the coalition’s radar for several years.

The products were originally marketed as a way to help adults quit smoking, though there isn’t enough research to support their efficacy as a tool for quitting, she noted.

Now, with high school students showing interest in the products, an important part of youth prevention efforts is stressing the difference between “safe” and “safer,” she said.

“Some people are saying, ‘Well, it’s safer than smoking.’ Well we kind of feel that that might be the case, because there’s a lot of carcinogens in cigarette smoke,” she said. “But there are also carcinogens in the vapor.”

Though research on vaping is limited, a 2018 study published in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found increased levels of carcinogenic compounds in the urine of teenagers who vape compared with those who don’t.

A 2016 Monitoring the Future study, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, found that 12th-graders who had used e-cigarettes were four times more likely to report having used tobacco cigarettes a year later than 12th grade students who had not tried electronic vapor products. More than 340 students were surveyed.

Last month, the Cheshire Coalition for Tobacco-Free Communities co-hosted a presentation by Breathe New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lung health issues, at the Keene Family YMCA. The presentation, “Vaping Unveiled,” covered the evolution of electronic vapor products and devices, as well as some of the concerns in the health care community about their effects.

About 25 people, most of them high school professionals and parents, attended, McNally said.

“Our focus really was to say that whatever an adult really does is up to them, but we really want to prevent youth from getting addicted to these products,” McNally said.

From Bartsch’s perspective, more research on the long-term effects of vaping among youth is sorely needed, but a good place to start addressing the issue would be more preventive education for both students and parents.

“I think (education) needs to start at the middle school level, and I think we need to play a role in educating parents,” Bartsch said. “Because some parents that I’ve talked to, too, they know kids are vaping and they don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

At Keene High School, prevention efforts have included informational booths in the cafeteria, notes in the parent newsletter and segments in the morning announcements about vaping, Whitehead said.

Recently, she and a school resource officer also gave a presentation to the school’s faculty about different types of electronic vapor devices and how to keep an eye out for them.

She stressed the importance of parents talking to their teens about vaping, but said adults should also take the time to try to understand why adolescents are interested in these products.

“It’s not just about shouting the risks in their face. That’s going to turn them off right away. A lot of talk with teens about vaping is trying to understand their perspective, being curious,” Whitehead said.