Killer Buzz: Area Schools Working To Combat Teen Vaping And Nicotine Addiction

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Health

One vaporizer pod can contain as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes, and is part of the reason nicotine addiction is becoming a serious issue among teen users.  ANDREY POPOV PHOTO

Think teen vaping is just a passing fad? Think again. The trend, which involves the use of electronic cigarettes or nicotine vaporizers by kids as young as 11, is on the rise, and with it a host of health problems.

Though the first tobacco vaporizer hit the market in 1963, their use soared after the mid-2000s when the market was saturated with products. The electronic or e-cigarettes are battery operated, handheld vaporizers into which pods filled with a nicotine-infused liquid concentrate are inserted. The vapors are then inhaled similar to cigarette smoke. Most teens are unaware of the dangers of e-cigarettes and the potential toxicity of the liquid inside the pods, which is not water and can contain as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes.

According to Kim Slade, the substance use program manager for the Barnstable County Department of Human Services, the rise in teen vaping has been dramatic.

“We've seen quite the explosion over the last year or so, not just on Cape but nationwide,” Slade said, adding that there has been a 50 percent increase in middle school vaping and an 80 percent increase at the high school level.

While it's illegal in Massachusetts for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase or possess tobacco products, savvy teens circumvent the age restrictions by ordering vaping supplies online or turning to older siblings, family members or friends to buy the e-cigarettes for them.

“What we're seeing is that 16-year-olds [will] get a basic Visa gift card and are able to use that to go online for supplies, and have them shipped where parents won't be home,” said Slade. “Parents really have no idea this is taking place [and] don't fully understand what's in the liquids and think it's harmless. What they don't realize is that there are a lot of the same cancer-causing chemicals in e-liquids” as in cigarettes.

Slade said that even the products claiming to be nicotine-free often test positive for nicotine, and that nicotine poisoning and related issues are becoming more widespread as the popularity of vaping rises.

“They're at the school nurse for what we call 'nic sick' symptoms: vomiting, stomach pains, rapid heart rate,” Slade said. “It primes their brains for nicotine and other addictions. We know that kids who use e-cigarettes are three times more likely to use regular cigarettes.”

Given the immense popularity of vaping, which has been fueled by marketing campaigns targeting younger users, what can schools do? Nauset, Monomoy and Cape Tech are treating it first as a health problem.

“What we're doing is...working with kids from a health paradigm,” said Nauset Regional High School Principal Christopher Ellsasser. “We're concerned about their health and the impact that vaping is having.”

Ellsasser said students have been caught vaping on school premises, largely in the bathrooms, which has become a primary target of school officials seeking to curb the trend.

“Our theory is that if adults are present in the bathrooms, that's going to help kids make better choices,” Ellsasser said.

Recently, stops were installed on bathroom doors throughout the campus, along with signs urging students to leave the doors open when the bathrooms aren't in use. Students also aren't allowed to take their cell phones into the bathrooms. The hope is that the door stops and lack of phones will reduce the number of students congregating in the spaces.

When students are caught vaping, Ellsasser said a suspension is involved, but that it's less about punishment and more about getting the student help.

“Our approach...is to have the student step away from school for a day or two so the school can say, 'There's an important health issue happening with your child right now. Let's put school on hold so you can talk as a family,'” Ellsasser said.

A meeting involving the student and family is then held to determine what health supports are needed and to apprise them of services available. The challenge is in communicating the dangers of vaping effectively to a large body of students. Ellsasser said at NRHS, the Student Support Group will be visiting classes to talk with kids about citizenship, making good decisions, and what they can do to contribute to the health of the community.

“Vaping will be part of that,” he said.

Monomoy Regional High School Principal Bill Burkhead said there has been a significant uptick in vaping at the school this year, prompting talks with professionals to learn the hazards. Similar to Nauset, Monomoy has what Burkhead referred to as a punitive and educational component to dealing with students caught vaping at school. Because it can be difficult to determine whether a vape cartridge contains marijuana or nicotine, the school treats vaporizers as paraphernalia, which involves an out-of-school suspension. However, the suspension is followed up with a parent meeting.

“A lot of the parents are surprised their child was doing it,” said Burkhead. “We're educating them as to what it is and we've found a lot of success with that.”

There have also been student assemblies to talk about the dangers of vaping, and a new curriculum regarding the dangers of vaping is planned for the fall. Project Connect is a nicotine cessation and reduction program created by Caron Treatment Centers and will become part of Monomoy's Jawsome hour.

“It's not specifically for vaping, however it is for nicotine addiction,” said Nurse Leader Cheryl Dufault, who will run the program with MRHS health teacher Stacy Yarnall. The eight-week program is designed to meet the needs of adolescents, helping them quit.

“If students get caught vaping in school, this will be part of their program,” said Dufault, who sees students with nicotine-related health issues on a daily basis. “I've had some kids say they wish they'd never started.”

The school also requires students to put their phones in holders upon entering classrooms, and staffers make regular bathroom checks.

“We're constantly making rounds, popping in and out of the bathrooms, breaking up groups of kids,” said Burkhead. “Visibility. I think that's the best friend to an administrator. Just to be around and be visible during the day.”

Bathrooms are also the primary spot for vaping at Cape Tech, which, like Monomoy and Nauset, is trying an educational approach before punishment.

“We have a packet of materials the kids need to go through from an educational perspective,” said Superintendent Robert Sanborn. “It's an ongoing process. It's about trying to stay one step ahead.”

The school also has a health class that's mandatory for all freshmen into which the dangers of vaping are being incorporated.

“I think education, enforcement, and public policy, and making it as undesirable as they've made smoking is key,” said Sanborn.

Slade hopes that parents will continue talking with their children about the dangers of vaping.

“Talk to your kids. There is so much information out there,” she said. “Educate yourselves so you can educate your kids.”

And to the kids she has a very clear message: don't even start.

“It's a very short buzz,” she said. “But is it really worth it?”