It snuck into the classroom through sleeves and backpacks. It crept into restrooms and on the grounds between the school building and the football field. The smell of fruit began to linger in the air. One moment, district officials thought their schools didn’t have a problem—but then the sweet aromas became more detectable, and staff started to listen to students’ conversations throughout the building. Vaping was, indeed, a problem.
Electronic cigarettes have been around for more than a decade, but their use among middle and high school students has increased exponentially in recent years. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “e-cigarette use, from 2017 to 2018, increased 78% among high school students and 48% among middle school students.” The 86th Texas Legislature took notice by passing Senate Bill (SB) 21, which raised the legal age for someone to purchase, use, or smoke tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 years old. Moreover, an outbreak of lung-related illnesses at the end of the summer put vaping in the media spotlight. As the smoke clears, it’s becoming impossible not to see the harmful effects of vaping.
Known by a variety of names including e-cigs, mods, and vapes or vape pens, these devices “produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine [flavorings] and other chemicals that help to make the aerosol,” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The aerosol is then inhaled into a user’s lungs.
Misconceptions abound when it comes to vaping’s health impacts. Teenagers, potentially drawn to the assortment of available vape flavors—from fruit varieties to dessert or coffee—don’t always know what ingredients e-cigarettes contain. While it’s true e-cigarette aerosol generally contains fewer toxic chemicals than regular cigarettes, it can still contain harmful chemicals such as nicotine, lead, and cancer-causing agents. A key factor in the spread of youth vaping might lie in the fact that many students think vapes only contain the flavoring and no nicotine, in part thanks to marketing tactics used by e-cigarette company Juul. In September 2019, the FDA sent the company a warning letter, stating that Juul was illegally promoting and selling their products as a healthier alternative to cigarette smoking.
During the Texas School Health Advisory Committee’s September meeting, Dr. John Hellerstedt, Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) commissioner, addressed vaping concerns: “What we are finding out is that young people are getting very sick. It is utterly astonishing to me and very, very worrying that young people know cigarettes are bad for you, but they don’t know vaping’s bad for you, too.”
On top of that, many school districts initially found themselves caught off guard by the problem.
"Students can be sneaky"
State law already prohibits smoking or the use of tobacco products at a school-related or school-sanctioned activity, on or off school property. But for Kelley Porter, superintendent of Lefors ISD, vaping and the ease with which students could get away with doing it was new to her and her staff.
“We didn’t think we had a problem with vaping,” Porter says. “We hadn’t seen it or heard about it. And then all of a sudden, we started listening more. We’d walk out of the bathroom and say, ‘Wow, it's really fruity in there.’ Some kids started talking, and when you catch a few, they want to turn others in so they aren’t the only ones in trouble.” Lefors ISD is a small K-12 district located in the Texas Panhandle with about 170 students. Porter recalls that students thought they were being “sneaky” by vaping in the school building, but then staff caught wind students were also vaping on the walk from the main building to the athletic field. “It was difficult to catch,” Porter says. “Those vapes can be so small. We’d stop a kid and search their backpack and boots and roll their pants up, but we couldn’t find the vaping device.” It took a few students confiding in staff about how their peers were hiding vaping devices for the district to know what specific action to take. “We found they were using them in the bathroom and classroom by holding the vape in their sleeves or hoodie and then blowing back in,” Porter explains. “We borrowed a policy from [nearby] Channing ISD—a sleeves-rolled-up policy.”
This policy involves students showing their wrist area to school personnel when they come to school, and it has “cut down tremendously” on in-school vaping, according to Porter. Additionally, the district also made the decision to bus students from the school to the football field and instituted a sign-out policy for restroom visits during class. Students are also no longer allowed to wear hoodies in school buildings.
Porter says their policies will remain in place for the long term, noting that vaping is “not just a passing fad.”
“I think so many of our kids are getting involved with it at a young age. Sixth graders are getting it from an older kid, thinking they’re cool. But with the nicotine, it leads to an addiction. Before they even know what they’re doing, they have that addiction.”
“We have to start talking about it”
Last year, Coppell ISD had its first disciplinary infraction involving e-cigarettes, immediately setting off concern among staff. “That was [one] too many for us,” says Jennifer Villines, director of student and staff services. The district, which serves more than 12,800 students in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, leapt into action in hopes of being proactive. “We were looking at our data to see how many vapes were coming in. What types of student education do we have in place? Do we need more?”
A multi-department collaboration between student and staff services, communications, security resource officers, the safety and security coordinator, and counselors resulted in a districtwide “Vanquish Vaping” plan. The district brought in speakers, implemented the Too Good for Drugs program in elementary schools, and instituted a model smoking prevention curriculum for sixth graders.
“We know students don’t want to be told what to do,” Villines says. “We wanted to arm them with facts and not myths and to disarm myths so the kids can determine what to do. I think we are just now getting a preview of some of the impacts on health, and we feel like it is our responsibility to educate students, parents, and staff right now so we can deter the use of something that is foreign going into the body.”
Apart from providing education, Coppell ISD installed sensors at a few campuses that send alerts to staff cellphones when they detect organic compounds unique to vaping. The district also has wands that detect vaping devices.
“Word got out pretty quickly that we meant business,” Villines says. “We did decrease our numbers, but last year we felt like it was something we just had limited research on. The fact is, a lot of kids think that they are quitting smoking or that vaping isn’t harming them, so we wanted to make sure they understand that one pod vape is equivalent to one pack of cigarettes [per Juul’s website]. Our kids didn’t know that.”
The district also leans on parental involvement. In a letter to families, Coppell ISD Superintendent Brad Hunt outlined four steps guardians could take to “protect” students from vaping: educating themselves about the risks of smoking, watching a video the district put together, starting conversations with their child about the risks of vaping, and preventing access to the devices and monitoring for usage. The district created a display board for parent education and invited a speaker to talk about the myths about marijuana and drug trends in general.
“We want kids, staff, and parents to have every resource possible to be fully educated about their choices,” Villines says. “Part of that is providing that education and pushing our information through a variety of methods. We don’t want to miss anyone. We really feel like it’s part of educating the whole child. It’s part of our mission that aligns with our core values in engaging the community.”
The task of educating parents and students alike is a challenge Lefors ISD faces as well. Despite news stories about lung-related illnesses and even deaths tied to vaping, Porter says many parents in her community have already made up their minds and that students “don’t think it [the illness] will happen to them.”
“Some parents don’t have a problem because they would rather their kid use an e-cigarette than a real cigarette,” Porter explains. “A lot of our education is talking to the kids and hoping it carries over at home.” However, Porter and her principal have discussed holding a vaping education session during one of their school’s family nights.
Porter believes educating staff is as vital to combating the vaping trend as educating parents and students. “You have to educate your teachers,” Porter says. “All the commercials show a huge vape cloud, but the students can hold the smoke in their mouth, and it’s gone in a few minutes. Understand what those devices can look like. Educate the staff on what they are looking for and how to stop it. Pull up photos on a website to show teachers what it looks like so they’re aware. Educate everybody.”
When briefing the school health panel in September, Hellerstedt praised the passing of SB 21 but acknowledged the difficulty in keeping vaping devices out of students’ hands. Noting the devices can look like thumb drives and cellphones, he advised schools to closely watch the areas where students congregate. Many problems Texas school districts face require a collaborative effort and multi-faceted solutions. Student vaping is no different.
“It’s important to be proactive and create a plan that’s right for the students you serve,” Villines says. “Look at each aspect of each campus. Look at your data and look at where you’re having the issue. How deep and how wide is it? Peel back the layers as you make a plan. Build a philosophy with your stakeholders, a united goal together that you can work toward. Stick to your plan, reflect together, collaborate. This is not something we can do alone. This has to be a joint effort.”
7 ways to tell if a student is vaping
- Increased thirst. Vaping makes users’ mouths dry. If you notice students drinking more than usual, it might be a sign they’re vaping.
- Nosebleeds. Vaping also dries the skin of the nose.
- Mouth sores and a persistent cough. Research has linked vaping to mouth sores that won’t heal and a smoker’s-like cough.
- Unfamiliar USB drives and battery chargers. Many vape devices resemble pens or USB drives. Look for odd-looking devices or spare parts lying around.
- Odd clothing choices and hands frequently near the face. Many districts realized students were able to vape in school by disposing of the smoke cloud into clothing. “If they are keeping their hand by their mouth or wearing long sleeves even when it’s hot outside, it almost looks like they are chewing on their shirt, and it’s because they’re blowing the smoke down their sleeve,” says Kelley Porter, Lefors ISD.
- Change in caffeine use. Vaping can cause more sensitivity to caffeine, which might result in a student forgoing caffeine or experiencing jitteriness, anxiety, and moodiness when combining the vaping and caffeine.
- Unexplained sweet scents. Teenagers are attracted to fruity, sweet vaping flavors. If you smell a random, unexplained sweet aroma nearby, question it. “If you smell tutti-frutti, citrus, or floral aromas, it may not be Bath & Body Works. It might be vaping,” says Jennifer Villines, Coppell ISD.
Sources: U.S. News & World Report, Raising Teens Today, Verywell Family, and the University of Virginia Health System.
Youth vaping by the numbers
In a 2018 Texas substance abuse survey:
30% of all 7th to 12th graders reported having tried any form of tobacco.
26% reported having tried an electronic vapor product.
Number of middle and and high school students who, in 2018, reported having used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, including:
5% of middle schoolers.
21% of high schoolers.
In 2015, among e-cigarette users ages 18–24:
40% had never been regular cigarette smokers.
In contrast, among e-cigarette users ages 45+, most were current or former regular cigarette smokers, and 1.3% had never been cigarette smokers.
Between 2017 and 2018, e-cigarette use increased:
78% among high schoolers.
48% among middle schoolers.
Sources: Texas School Survey of Drug and Alcohol Use, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration. Numbers rounded to nearest whole number.