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Vaping becomes problem in schools as trend grows

Updated: Mar. 28, 2019 at 10:31 PM CDT
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PURVIS, MS (WDAM) - Lamar County Superintendent Tess Smith said vaping has become a serious problem in her district, mainly among high school students.

“One of my resource officers sent me a video a couple of months ago and said we had a student vaping on the bus,” Smith said. “I started reviewing the video. I had to watch it three times, because it’s only a vapor, you don’t see smoke like you do when someone is actually smoking a cigarette. And typically the odor can be everything from mint, to fruit, you could have any flavor that you want. So it’s hard for us to detect and honestly, to put a stop to it.”

This is a national phenomenon. A 2018 government survey found a sudden and stunning increase in the use of e-cigarettes among American teenagers.

“What we’ve seen is an explosive growth in teen use of the e-cigarette products,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. “Year over year we saw a 78 percent increase among high school students using e-cigarettes, and a 50 percent increase in middle school students using e-cigarettes — really epidemic proportions of use, the growth was just over one year.”

Gottlieb told WDAM’s Washington bureau that everyone, including the schools, was “caught off guard” by the vaping eruption. It is rapidly expanding and constantly evolving. Lamar County took the extraordinary step of amending school policy in the middle of the year to keep up.

“We’ve actually had to make an adjustment to our handbook. We rarely do that during the school year,” Smith said. “But we did this year and just for vaping, to make sure that we covered it. Because our previous [handbook] said e-cigarettes, well now it’s a whole classification, it’s e-cigarettes but it’s JUULs, it’s vaping, there’s a variety of names for it.”

She said teachers have to be vigilant.

“It often can be happening in class," Smith said. "The vapor, you may or may not see it. And if it smells like a candle burning, or somebody chewing gum, it’s hard to detect.”

The FDA is taking action, recently introducing new requirements on merchants aimed at keeping these products out of the hands of kids, especially the fruit flavors they crave the most. Gottlieb said if the 2019 survey now being conducted turns up another dramatic increase in teen vaping, the FDA will have to go further and take the widely abused products off the market completely.

In the meantime, he recommends that schools do what they do best, which is teach.

“Well, I think, educating children that these aren’t safe,” he said. “We’ve stigmatized smoking in this country. Kids know it’s not safe to smoke. We’ve seen smoking rates go down dramatically in this nation, and that’s one of the greatest public health victories in modern times.

“I think there’s a perception somehow that this isn’t smoking, and it’s safe. These aren’t safe. Nicotine is an addictive substance. Nicotine has direct effects on a developing brain of a young person. We know that some proportion of people who become addicted to nicotine through these products are now going to migrate on to cigarettes, so we’re going to see cigarette use go back up in kids, and in fact we’ve seen that.”

And the schools need the help of parents to stop this epidemic, Smith said.

“I just want them to be aware, and talk to their children about it,” she said. “Ask them if they know about it, if they have friends who are doing it, if they’ve tried it. Because once they start it, I think it has the potential to be very addictive.

“And I think when you buy something like that, do you really know what’s in it? Because when you start talking to kids about it, they can’t tell you exactly what’s in it. Some of them will even tell you, ‘Oh, there’s no nicotine in it.’ And there actually is. So I think parents need to do their research as well, and as always, talk to their children about everything that they’re doing, involved in, or thinking about being involved in.”

Gottlieb said for adults who are addicted to smoking, e-cigarettes are “probably a less harmful alternative.” But he said that does not mean they are safe, and especially not for kids.

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