Vaping in Schools: A Challenge For Educators

May 7, 2018

A new fad is taking over the nation’s schools: vaping.  While smoking among teenagers has been declining, vaping has become rampant over the last several years.  In fact, a 2016 U.S. Surgeon General’s report cited a 900% increase in e-cigarette use by high school students between 2011 and 2015.  The 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that 1.7 million high school students reported they had used e-cigarettes in the previous 30 days.  Among middle school students, the number was an alarming 500,000.  Various schools deal with the vaping issue in different ways; many schools look to punitive measures to eliminate vaping, while some schools have begun taking steps to rehabilitate students who are caught vaping.

In New York, the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices is prohibited in all public and private elementary or secondary schools, including within one hundred feet of the entrances, exits or outdoor areas of the school.  In New Jersey, the use of e-cigarettes is prohibited in all public and nonpublic elementary or secondary schools, regardless of whether the area is an indoor public place or is outdoors.  With the drastic rise in vaping incidents, many schools have implemented harsh punishments, including drug testing and mandatory suspensions for being caught vaping.  Legally, the schools are well within their rights to ban vaping and vaping devices.  However, after punishing students and seeing them continue to struggle to quit vaping, other school districts have decided to take different measures to attack the problem.  In many instances, the students are addicted to the nicotine in the products.  Therefore, some schools have implemented intervention policies for combating the vaping problem.  These districts believe that getting these students the help they need through proactive means will do more to assist them in overcoming addiction than any punishment.

The vaping problem has become widespread among teenagers in the last several years, following the invention of numerous devices that allow students to conceal their habit.  The most popular device, called a JUUL, can easily be mistaken for a flash drive.  The JUUL has become so common among students that they often refer to vaping as “JUULing.”

These devices are so discrete that many students vape even while in class.  They can hide the devices in their clothing and “take a pull” while sitting at their desk.  The vaping devices produce a very small plume and a fruity aroma, making it difficult to detect that someone is vaping.

Many experts believe that vape companies are deliberately targeting teenagers.  The fruity flavors these companies produce are popular among teens.  The vaping industry has also created clothing lines and contests to appeal to teenagers, including “cloud blowing” contests where participants blow intricate patterns while exhaling.  According to a study by the University of North Carolina, teens perceive fruit-flavored substances as less harmful.  Further, a University of Michigan study reported that 51.8% of high school seniors believe that the substance they were inhaling was “just flavoring.”

The Food and Drug Administration (“F.D.A.”), recognizing the prevalence of vaping among teenagers, has announced a major crackdown on the vaping industry.  The F.D.A has started undercover sting operations targeting retailers of JUULs, including gas stations, convenience stores, and online retailers.  The F.D.A. said it has already issued forty warning letters to JUUL retailers that violated the federal law prohibiting the sale of vaping devices to underage individuals.

Further, the manufacturer of the JUUL, JUUL Labs, recently announced a $30 million campaign to combat underage vaping.  In a press release, the company said the campaign will fund research on vaping and the formation of an expert panel to prevent and reduce underage use of JUUL products.  JUUL Labs indicated that the company supports state and federal legislation to raise the minimum age for vaping products to twenty-one.

While e-cigarettes are widely considered safer than traditional cigarettes, it is too new to truly understand the long-term effects.  The lack of research on the health hazards of vaping combined with teenagers’ lack of education on the subject is a cause for concern.  What cannot be debated is that vape “juice” contains a higher concentration of nicotine than traditional cigarettes.  In fact, one JUUL pod has as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes.  This greater concentration of an extremely addictive substance has led to problems for students, including a higher propensity to begin smoking cigarettes.

With so many students vaping, many schools have sought tougher punishments for vaping.  Several New Jersey schools have included vaping, or being in possession of a vaping device, as a violation of their substance abuse policies.  Students caught vaping or with a vaping device can now be subject to drug testing, suspensions, or other punishments.  The schools have justified the inclusion of vaping under the substance abuse policy by pointing out that vaping devices can also be used for the ingestion of marijuana.  However, many schools that have implemented tough policies on vaping have found that the punishments were not reducing the instances of vaping.  With so many students receiving repeated punishment for vaping, some school districts have begun taking a different approach: intervention.

Intervention is an alternative way to combat the vaping epidemic among teenagers.  Many students have faced harsh punishments, even the risk of expulsion in some cases.  In the face of severe punishment, a large portion of these students have continued to use vaping devices because of their addiction.  Boulder Valley School District in Colorado has begun requiring students who are caught vaping to undergo substance abuse treatment and to receive counseling. Boulder Valley believes intervention is more beneficial to the students’ long-term health than any punishment. Schools that use intervention instead of punishment believe that helping these students fight their addictions, rather than treating them as delinquents, is critical to a positive school environment.


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