During the school year just ended, Jasper High School recorded about a dozen violations of the school district’s nicotine policy. All of them involved e-cigarettes.
At Northeast Dubois High School, staff members occasionally come across students with chewing tobacco, but this past semester found two small groups of students with electronic cigarettes on school property.
“This has been a big year for it,” Northeast Dubois High School social worker Paige Mundy said, referring to the use of e-cigarettes in school. Mundy also chairs Dubois County CARES, which stands for Coalition for Adolescent Resilience and Empowerment Strategies. The group aims to empower youth to be alcohol and drug free.
E-cigarettes work by heating liquid nicotine to create vapor, which the user inhales. That mist “generally contains fewer harmful chemicals than smoke from burned tobacco products,” according to the Centers for Disease Control, but the nicotine still “is highly addictive.”
“We know the nicotine in these products can rewire an adolescent’s brain, leading to years of addiction,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said when his agency took steps to crack down on the vaping industry in April.
The FDA regulates all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and it is illegal to sell them to anyone younger than 18.
E-cigarettes can look like tobacco cigarettes but often don’t. Some of them resemble ink pens, while others are tiny and look like computer flash drives; their resemblance to items commonly found in schools can make them hard to detect.
Juuls — the thumb-drive-looking e-cigarette named for the San Francisco company that makes it, Juul Labs — and similar products create minimal vapor, and the fruity smell given off by the flavored nicotine can mimic those of body spray. Students have been known to hide their devices inside of, and exhale the vapor into, long sleeves.
One high school upperclassman told her counselor at Memorial Counseling Center in Jasper that as many as 75 percent of her classmates have a vape pen or Juul and use it several times a week.
Adam, not his real name, was one of the Dubois County students suspended this past school year for violating his high school’s nicotine policy. He confirms what school officials suspect: E-cigarettes can be so discrete that students use them in class.
“Some kids are like, ‘Watch this,” Adam said. Vaping in class without getting caught “kind of gets them a little fame.”
Manufacturers of the electronic devices say their intent is to help nicotine-addicted adults access nicotine without the most harmful effects of the combustion of tobacco. Part of the reality, many in the health field fear, is that the products are the gateway to young people using nicotine and tobacco.
“In some cases, our kids are trying these products and liking them without even knowing they contain nicotine,” the FDA’s Gottlieb said.
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