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Schools crackdown on vaping and e-cigarettes

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids hopes the federal government will take stronger action to restrict sales of the devices, such as raising the legal purchasing age to 21. (Gettyimages: martinedoucet).
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids hopes the federal government will take stronger action to restrict sales of the devices, such as raising the legal purchasing age to 21. (Gettyimages: martinedoucet).

Administrators have closed or increased monitoring of school bathrooms. They have sent students for drug tests. They have even banned USB thumb drives. These actions reflect the wide range of responses district leaders have taken to curb the alarming increase in students’ use of vaping devices and e-cigarettes.

“We’re very concerned that the emergence of e-cigarettes could undermine the progress we’ve made in reducing tobacco use, and could put a new generation at risk of nicotine addiction,” says Vince Willmore, vice president for communications at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Educators and experts appear most concerned about the JUUL vaping device, which is designed to look just like a computer thumb drive. It can be recharged with a laptop’s USB port, and there is anecdotal evidence that students have used them to vape while in class.

“It comes in flavors like fruit medley and crème brûlée that appeal to kids,” Willmore says. “And it gives a very strong hit of nicotine—according to the manufacturer, each JUUL pod contains nicotine equal to a pack of cigarettes.”

‘A culture of acceptance’

At Jonathan Law High School, part of Milford Public Schools in Connecticut, administrators have reduced vaping by limiting bathroom use to one facility for boys and one for girls. A staff member sits outside and observes who enters and leaves, says Annaliese Spaziano, the district’s supervisor of student development.

District surveys of seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders have showed increased vaping use in both high school and middle school, she adds. The district now details the dangers of vaping in its wellness curriculum, which also includes guiding students to make better choices around vaping, smoking and substance abuse.

“Students feel, because it’s not a cigarette and it’s vapor instead of smoke, that it’s less harmful,” Spaziano says. “It creates a culture of acceptance. Plus, there are lots of cool, fun flavors that appeal to the younger generation, which is really scary.”

Milford’s school resource officers have led PD sessions where teachers learn to spot the various devices. Community groups in the city have held similar sessions for parents.

In future surveys, the district intends to get a better understanding of how students are obtaining the devices, whether that’s through the internet or from older friends or siblings, she adds.

Federal action needed?

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids hopes the federal government will take stronger action to restrict sales of the devices, such as raising the legal purchasing age to 21 (as is the law in five states and several hundred communities). The Campaign also would like to see more stringent age verification on websites that sell the devices, Willmore says.

Finally, the FDA should immediately review all of these products and ban any that appeal to minors. Federal law bans sale of flavored cigarettes, with the exception of menthol, he adds.

“E-cigarettes are sold in thousands of flavors—gummy bears, cotton candy,” Willmore says. “There’s clear evidence that flavor plays important role in kids using tobacco products.”

In-school solution

A new sensor that can detect the vapor offers another solution. The device, produced by Soter Technologies, can be placed in bathrooms, locker rooms and other areas where cameras are prohibited, and where students are likely to vape.

When the sensor detects the volatile organic compounds emitted by e-cigarettes or vaping, an alert is sent to designated school personnel. The device also detects increases in sound that could be associated with students fighting or bullying, says Steve Schmid, Soter’s vice president of marketing.

In some schools, students have tried to tamper with the sensors even though the devices don’t have the company’s name or any identifying logos, Schmid adds. “Prevention starts with detection,” he says. “This is all about the practical application of technology to detect and deter for safer and healthier schools.”