After the last bell for school rang on Thursday, Lindsey gathered her friends to walk to the Three Rivers Mall in Kelso, blowing vapor from her Juul in the cool outdoor air.
“I vape because I have a hard time getting focused, and it makes me less stressed,” the eighth grader said.
Although she and her friends are too young to buy the products themselves, they are available through older friends or siblings, Lindsey said. By her account, at least half the students in her middle school smoke, and most of them prefer vaping to cigarettes.
Schools officials in middle and high schools across Cowlitz County say the number of local students who are vaping is surging, a trend mirrored across the country. Kalama High School principal Guy Strot said he’s worried the fad is hooking the next generation on nicotine — and educators are losing ground against vaping due to widespread misconceptions about its safety.
The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey showed the youth vaping population increased 78 percent between 2017 and 2018, with 1.5 million more students reporting they used vaping products last year.
“We are only into early December, and we have had 34 total tobacco infractions, and 32 of those have been vape,” said Kelso High School principal Christine McDaniel. If this year’s trend continues, the number of vape infractions this school year will approach 100, doubling the 49 vaping infractions reported last year.
Vaping products first hit the mass market around 2007 as e-cigarettes, though manufacturers have grown and diversified the products in recent years to look like cigars, pipes, pens and USB drives. The devices heat a liquid or “juice” to make an aerosol that can be inhaled.
The juice usually contains nicotine, so vaping products offer a substitute to regular cigarettes. For adult smokers, the devices offer a less harmful way to get a nicotine fix.
“When you look at the difference of COPD and asthma conditions, we haven’t heard anything horrible yet,” said Marshall Brock, manager at Vipor Vapor in Longview and Kelso.
Though they are less harmful than cigarettes, the Center for Disease Control warns against using the products for those who don’t already use tobacco. The center emphasizes the potential hazards for teenagers, whose brain development can be negatively affected by nicotine.
“Kids think it’s safer, and we’ve even heard people say that. But with one Juul pod, you are putting the equivalent of an entire pack of cigarettes into your body,” McDaniel said. “They are uninformed.”
The health hazards don’t seem to deter local students from vaping, school officials say.
“Students try vaping because their friends or older siblings are doing it, it’s fun (you can do tricks), its rebellious and easy to hide from your teachers,” said Huyen Truong, intervention specialist for Kelso schools. “Students go from vaping out of curiosity to being physically and emotionally dependent before they even realize it.”
Shaun Campbell, assistant principal at Castle Rock High School, said the students he catches vaping “cherry pick the information” that shines a more positive light on their habit, he said.
In response, the school has amped up its educational efforts about vaping. A recent revision to the student handbook decreased suspension time for vaping, replacing those days with an eight-hour requirement for counseling with the school’s intervention specialist. Campbell said the strategy seems to have reduced repeat offenders, though it’s too early to see any definite trends.
The Kelso School District is taking a similar course by referring offenders to counseling. McDaniel said a six-week cycle of counseling with Truong is required for high school offenders.
“If a student is ready to stop vaping, together we create an individual quit plan that includes knowing the reasons why they are quitting, setting a date, identifying their triggers and giving them tips to fight cravings and stay on track,” Truong said. “Students can also download quit apps or sign up for SmokefreeTXT, a text message program that provides daily encouragement, advice and tips to quitting.”
Students sometimes blow off the warnings and offers of help.
Lindsey, the Kelso eighth-grader, she’s been referred to counseling but didn’t take it to heart.
“For some people at the middle school, they have them talk to a counselor. But they just think it’s stupid,” Lindsey said.
Elijah, who attends Kelso High School, said most of his peers think the warnings are all for show.
“They tell you that you shouldn’t do this, but they don’t say it like they mean it. They just say it to keep their jobs,” he said.
Truong combats this cynicism by building trust with the students. She said the first step of her counseling sessions is to discuss confidentiality.
“I make sure they understand my job is to support them, not to get them in trouble. Once students feel safe, they are more open to sharing and learning,” Truong said.
And the push back from some students hasn’t stopped administrators from trying to get the message through to everyone.
“One of the things we’ve started doing in our health classrooms...is incorporating units and literature around vaping and the hazards of vaping,” McDaniel said. “We’ve just seen such a rise in the use that we’ve really had to attack the rising popularity.”
The district is also working with local law enforcement to implement a $103 fine for students caught vaping on school property, as per city code, McDaniel said.
The offenders — at Kelso and beyond — have an advantage that make it harder to catch them: Their devices are designed to be discreet.
“Just knowing what to look for is a huge piece of it,” McDaniel said. “Many of the vape products very much look like a jump drive or a highlighter pen. Parents might see it in their students’ backpack and think it’s just a charger, so they are very deceptive.”
Brock, the vape store manager, said he likes that the devices are concealable for adult smokers like him because it helps hide an embarrassing vice. However, he does not condone the use of vaping products by kids.
“We don’t want the kids out there vaping, and we definitely don’t want them smoking,” Brock said.
There’s also an incentive for stores like his to abide by the law, which prohibits the sale of vaping devices to anyone under 18.
“After so many infractions for underage selling, they shut down your store temporarily for six months. That’s business-crippling,” Brock said, noting that the losses over that six-month period would keep many stores from bouncing back.
“When there was stings done for underage kids going in and buying vape products, it was a 97 percent failure rate through gas stations alone,” Brock said. (The record of violations for vaping shops in Cowlitz County was unavailable through the state Liquor and Cannabis board last week.)
School officials suspect their students are getting their vaping products through older peers. Once in the hands of minors, the discreet devices are difficult to police.
Strot, the Kalama principal, said he “typically only catches students through coincidence.” For example, students have been caught because their devices fell out of their pockets or their teachers walked in on them vaping in the locker room.
Strot said he’s has taken to heavily policing the bathrooms, a popular location for vaping during class period because it’s free of cameras.
“I have the fire chief coming in next week to see if I can remove the door of the bathroom. ... I wouldn’t be doing that except for the fact that I go in there 15 times a day,” Strot said.
He said he wants to “make it as hard as possible to vape here” at Kalama High School.
But the growing number of referrals and infractions is the least of Strot’s worries, he said.
“My biggest issue is the welfare of the students. I don’t want a student, because of peer pressure, trying something with nicotine and becoming addicted,” Strot said.
“I watched my dad die of emphysema, and I understand the side effects of being addicted to nicotine,” Strot said. “If I can make it harder for them to a get addicted at school, I’m going to.”
Child health hazard
Recent studies have shown that vaping can deliver nicotine to the brain in as little as 10 seconds. The highly addictive chemical is also harmful to a child’s brain development and can increase impulsivity and mood disorders, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The vapor is not without risks, either. Although the aerosol generally contains fewer toxic chemicals than cigarettes, it stills contains harmful compounds, metals and cancer-causing agents, according to the Center for Disease Control.
“A common misconception is that e-cigarettes contain natural water vapor when in fact it’s chemical solvents that turn into different byproducts like formaldehyde and harmful metals when heated by the e-cig,” Truong said. “The nicotine in the e-cigarette is highly addictive, increases heart rate and blood pressure and interferes with the body’s natural ability to make dopamine. Vaping hasn’t been around long enough to know the long-term effects on the body, but many of the toxic chemicals in regular cigarettes are also found in the e-cigarette.”
Brock said Vipor Vapor, and other stores like it, has a good hold on the current vaping research. He said his staff heavily encourages first-time buyers to thoroughly research vaping products before they decide to make a purchase.
“I don’t want people to be misinformed. That’s what we are here for, and that’s why we have a brick and mortar shop,” Brock said. “It’s an alternative that has research behind it, and there is a reason we are becoming a bigger marketplace.”
Adding vaping-related research to the classrooms a leading strategy for local schools in their battle against the epidemic. Like his Kelso and Castle Rock colleagues, Strot is introducing new vaping units in health classes.
Though no definitive fix has been found yet, Strot and other local administrators are continually generating new ideas for combating the problem.
“You react to something that becomes an issue, and this became an issue within the last 10 months,” Strot said. “I’m critical of manufacturers that make devices that appeal to kids and are in a form factor that are easy to hid and use. We can’t fix that, but what we can do is educate and do what we can to keep them from doing it.”