They do it in school classrooms right in front of teachers and other students, using devices that look like flash drives and phone chargers that emit little to no odor and are easily hidden inside sleeves and hoodies.
Vaping — a form of electronic cigarettes — is booming in popularity inside Metro Detroit middle and high schools, prompting education leaders to turn to police and health officials for help.
Young people are drawn to the devices because they’re cheap, easy to access and assumed — falsely, experts say — to be safe. Adding to the problem: schools can ban vaping, but there’s no Michigan law banning minors from using e-cigarettes.
Teens are using the devices right in school, exhaling thick plumes of vapor into their clothing during class or on breaks in stairwells and bathrooms.
“Some school are saying this is an epidemic. They are dealing with it on a daily or weekly basis,” said Carol Mastroianni, executive director of the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition. “They can take a hit off of it and blow smoke in a shirt sleeve. … This is happening in middle and high school (and) as early as fifth grade.”
The coalition, which raises awareness to prevent the abuse of drugs and alcohol, said schools in Oakland and Macomb counties say vaping incidents have been increasing in middle schools and become more prevalent in high schools.
“Because vaping is not like smoking — it doesn’t smell up the hallway or bathroom — it’s easy for kids to do it in school,” said school liaison officer David VanKerckhove, with the Bloomfield Township police department. “They go into the bathroom, or a stairwell or even some kids do it in the middle of class. The problem for teachers and staff is it’s hard to detect.”
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid — the juice — into an aerosol that the user inhales. The liquid usually has nicotine and flavoring in it as well as other additives.
Even e-cigarettes that don’t contain nicotine can still be harmful, according to health officials.
Vaping 101 for parents
This spring, dozens of districts across Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties are partnering with hospital systems to hold “vaping 101” information sessions to educate parents and school officials on what vaping is, what the devices look like and the range of vape juices, or “juice,” that teens inhale.
Cheryl Phillips, coordinator program for St. Joseph Mercy Health Exploration Station, said she is in districts two to three times a week at the request of school officials to provide the education, which informs parents and students of the dangers of vaping, which include nicotine exposure, addiction and “popcorn lung,” a deadly respiratory condition.
Phillips was at Canton High School on Thursday, where she spoke to parents about the spike in vaping among teens.
“Schools are coping with this the best they can. It has dramatically increased this past year,” Phillips said. “Every district we have talked to says it’s a big problem.”
School officials attribute the increase in vaping in children to easy access to vaping tools in neighborhood retail stores and online. The devices are made to resemble everyday items such as cellphones, ink pens, flash drives and cosmetic containers that are easily overlooked by parents and educators.
“All of this stuff is marketed to be attractive to young people,” Mastroianni said.
Some districts have bans on vaping and e-cigarettes on campus and will discipline students who are caught, but police can do little when they spot a teen vaping.
Federal law bans the sale of tobacco products, including vaping materials, to anyone younger than 18.
But Michigan does not have a state law against a minor possessing vaping tools and juices — the liquid added to the device, police said.
Teens love to vape juices that smell sweet and have such names as “Rainbow Candy,” “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” and “Bubble Gum,” according to Mastroianni. They report getting a buzz from vaping and say they do it as a way to eliminate social awkwardness, she said.
“So what flavor do you vape? That is a conversation starter. These are the students who wouldn’t be using other substances. They aren’t using alcohol or marijuana,” she said. “They think vaping is safe.”
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