Journal Times editorial — Educators need to get ahead of new nicotine dangers for teens

For many of us who tried smoking cigarettes as teenagers, it was something we had to hide from the adults in our lives: Parents, teachers, neighbors who would report us to our parents, and so on.

These days, teens who have gotten hooked on smoking, who find themselves already addicted to nicotine, have turned to e-cigarettes, also known as vaping, the tobacco alternative which delivers nicotine through liquid heated into vapor and inhaled; it results in a less conspicuous puff of steam instead of the obvious whiff of a cigarette. But vaping has distinctive scents, and it’s still a puff you can get caught with in the school bathroom.

But now there’s something called Juuling — we’ll get to that in a moment — and as a result teenagers are becoming addicted to nicotine in ways that are far less obvious.

An April 2 report by the New York Times detailed how today’s high school students find themselves no less addicted to using e-cigarettes than their parents or grandparents were to cigarettes.

In his four years at Cape Elizabeth High School in Maine, Vice Principal Nate Carpenter said he couldn’t recall seeing a single student smoke a cigarette. But vaping is suddenly everywhere. “It’s our demon,” he said.

The challenge for educators became greater last fall, when students arrived with easily concealed devices. The most popular, made by Juul, a San Francisco-based company that has received venture capital money, resemble a computer flash drive and has become so ubiquitous students have turned Juul into a verb: Juuling. The devices produce little telltale plume, making it possible for some students to vape even in class.

“They can pin them on to their shirt collar or bra strap and lean over and take a hit every now and then, and who’s to know?” said Howard Colter of Cape Elizabeth. Juul devices also contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, so they are easy to share.

Juul Chief Adminstrative Officer Ashley Gould said that the company’s products are intended solely for adults who want to quit smoking. “We do not want kids using our products,” she said. “Our product is not only not for kids, it’s not for non-nicotine users.”

She said schools and the e-cigarette industry need to work together to understand why teenagers are vaping, and suggested that stress is a big reason. To that end, she said, Juul has offered schools a curriculum that includes mindfulness exercises for students to keep them away from the devices the company sells.

E-cigarettes are widely considered safer than traditional cigarettes, but they are too new for researchers to understand the long-term health effects. School and health officials say several things are clear, though: Nicotine is highly addictive, the pods in vaping devices have a higher concentration of nicotine than do individual cigarettes, and a growing body of research indicates that vaping is leading more adolescents to try cigarettes.

The vaping liquids in e-cigarettes contain additives such as propylene glycol and glycerol that can form carcinogenic compounds when they are heated. Diacetyl, a chemical used to flavor some vape “juice,” has been linked to the scarring and obstruction of the lungs’ smallest airways. A study published in the journal Pediatrics in March found substantially increased levels of five carcinogenic compounds in the urine of teenagers who vape.

“With cigarettes, we’ve been studying them for many years, we have a pretty good idea of what the risks are. We just don’t know what the risks of inhaling all these flavorings and dyes are, and what we do know is already pretty scary.” said Dr. Mark L. Rubinstein, the lead author of the Pediatrics study.

A 2016 study sponsored by the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse followed students who in 12th grade had never smoked a cigarette and found that a year later, those who used e-cigarettes were about four times as likely to have smoked a cigarette. A study released in January by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine similarly concluded that vaping led students to smoke cigarettes.

In other words, teenagers who think they’re using a safe alternative to cigarettes can wind up just as addicted to nicotine as their ancestors.

Schools and local officials nationally have stiffened penalties for students caught with vaping devices, suspending and even expelling them, and sent home letters pleading with parents to be on the lookout for a waft of fruit smell.

Some New Jersey districts have recently adopted policies requiring any student caught with an e-cigarette to be drug tested, because the devices can be used to smoke marijuana. New Trier High School in Chicago’s northern suburbs is considering installing vaping detectors in bathrooms.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions for schools to adopt with regard to nicotine. But we think it’s time for Racine County educators to consider what solutions will work best at their schools.

For we non-educators? Ask any smoker how hard it is to quit. Then ask your teenage son or daughter if that’s where they want to end up with vaping or Juuling.



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