By Liza Moore
Like many school districts across the country, Rockbridge County is working to discourage students from using e-cigarettes or vape products. In the wake of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths, school and community leaders are confronting the epidemic by educating teens and adults about the dangers of nicotine in order to prevent the use of vaping products among minors.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than one in four high school students in the United States use e-cigarettes. Eighteen states, including Virginia, have raised the tobacco age to 21 as a strategy to reduce tobacco use among teens, but despite regulatory efforts, the underage use of e-cigarettes rose from 20.8 percent in 2018 to 27.5 percent in 2019.
Seth Campbell, prevention facilitator for Rockbridge Area Community Services, said many parents have misconceptions about e-cigarette products.
“Some parents have purchased vaping systems [for their kids] thinking they were water vapor,” said Campbell.
The terms “vape” and “e-cigarette” are used interchangeably to describe battery powered products that heat either cartomizers, in e-cigarettes, or pod cartridges, in vapes. The cartridges typically contain nicotine, flavorings, chemicals, and, in some cases, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component in marijuana. There are more than 450 types of e-cigarette and vaping brands, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse.
Wednesday night, 15 people attended a discussion at Dabney Lancaster Community College. The Rockbridge Area Prevention Coalition, which is a part of the Rockbridge Area Community Services, held the event to inform the community about vaping products and teach parents and schools how they can work together to discourage the use of e-cigarette products among teens.
On Monday, the Rockbridge County High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association is hosting a “Hidden in Plain Sight” simulation during its meeting at Rockbridge County High School. Sergeant Hugh Ferguson, the school resource officer and representative from Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, will set up a typical teen’s room and review signs of nicotine and other drug use in order to show parents what they need to be aware of.
Maury River Middle School is having a similar event on Nov. 25.
Despite having rules against smoking on campus, students at Rockbridge County High School are bringing e-cigarette products to school.
“The first couple weeks of school, we were getting about two [students caught vaping] a week,” said Mike Craft, Rockbridge County High School’s principal. “After that, it has been about one every couple of weeks. Either they are getting better at hiding it, or they are not bringing them in the building.”
Parry McCluer High School’s principal, Malissa Cobb, was unavailable for an interview.
Rockbridge County High School has tried to “deter the use through educational programs, providing students information through their physical education and school counseling departments as well as evening presentation for adults and students, using guest speakers, hanging posters, and distributing written information on the effects of e-cigarette use,” said Craft.
One of the largest issues with vaping products is they are easy to conceal. “Many of the vaping products are so high-tech so [the prevention coalition is working to] show parents and teachers what they need to be looking for,” said Campbell.
Products such as vaping watches, hoodies, necklaces, and backpacks make e-cigarettes harder to detect. UWELL’s Amulet Pod System Vape Watch is designed to look like an Apple Watch, but it is actually “a fully functional open pod vape system with a functioning watch design [and] is a convenient way to carry your vape pod system anywhere you go,” according to the product’s description on VaporDNA.
“The first couple weeks of school, we were getting about two [students caught vaping] a week. After that, it has been about one every couple of weeks. Either they are getting better at hiding it, or they are not bringing them in the building.” – Mike Craft, Rockbridge County High School principal
Juuls are a type of e-cigarette that look like a flash drive and can be easily hidden in the palm of your hand. Juul pods come in flavors such as mint, mango, crème, fruit, Virginia tobacco, and classic tobacco. One Juul pod contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, according to Juul Lab’s website.
Juul is the most popular vaping device among teens because of its appealing flavors and subtle appearance. Juul sales increased by over 600 percent from 2016 to 2017, from 2.2 million devices to 16.2 million, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
School systems in St. Charles, Missouri., Olathe, Kansas, and on Long Island have sued Juul for the schools’ time and money going towards awareness and prevention methods about nicotine addiction for teenagers. But Craft said Rockbridge County schools have not discussed that route.
Craft said it is difficult to estimate the amount of resources put into awareness at Rockbridge County High School since their education programs are either co-curricular or involve volunteers or free outside resources.
Juul Lab, which is partially owned by Richmond-based Altria Group, said it wants to get its products off school campuses. “We absolutely condemn kids using our products,” said Christine Castro, a spokeswoman for Juul Lab.
The U.S. government is under pressure to produce a nationwide policy on vaping products, but many states have enacted their own bans or awareness campaigns to curb the epidemic. In late September, Ralph Northam, Virginia’s governor, said that his administration is considering a ban on vaping in the Commonwealth.
As of Oct. 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported over 1,000 lung-related illnesses due to vaping products in 48 states; 18 deaths have been confirmed in 15 states. A study in the journal “Tobacco Control” found that the younger teenagers are, the more likely they are to use e-cigarette products such as Juul. The study also found that 15- to 17-year-olds are 16 times more likely to be current Juul users than those aged 25 to 34.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated its consumer alert to urge the public to not use vaping products containing THC.
“Most of the patients impacted by these illnesses reported using THC-containing products, suggesting THC products are playing a role in these illnesses,” said Norman Sharpless, the Acting Commissioner of Food and Drug for the FDA, in a press announcement. Many patients have used both THC and nicotine vaping products as well as a variety of delivery systems, which the FDA said is making the agency’s investigation particularly challenging.