Reading, writing and vaping
As the number of teens using e-cigarettes goes up, NH schools try to deal with the crisis and educate students
While combustible cigarette use has declined among young people, vaping — the use of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) — has skyrocketed.
The widely held attitude about e-cigarettes and similar devices among teens and many adults is that vaping is safe, and that e-juice, which contains nicotine, is only water and fruit and candy flavoring.
“The overall perception is that vaping is ‘better than smoking.’ Parents and teens don’t understand the health impact of these products — many of which are more potent in terms of nicotine than cigarettes — on young people under 25,” said Kim Coronis, Breathe NH’s policy and program manager.
“Healthy teenagers are harming themselves by putting unknown chemicals and toxins into their bodies. It’s concerning to see how little they know about the effects of vaping,” said Christine Bostaph, program coordinator at the Raymond Coalition for Youth (RCFY), a group whose mission is to empower the community to promote positive youth development and reduce youth substance use and suicide risk.
Schools are increasingly dealing with students who are caught vaping or with vaping materials.
A 2010 change to the existing tobacco law banned minors from possessing or buying e-cigarettes or liquid nicotine. In 2019, the state legislature passed HB 511, a bill that expounds upon those changes, but it had not yet been signed by the governor in early July.
The state Department of Education mandates that every school has a policy for substance possession and/or use on campus, but each district sets its own policy. Combustible cigarettes, e-cigs, Juul, opiates, marijuana and alcohol, all fall under the illicit substance category — and all are illegal for minors.
In a Seacoast school district, one student resource officer reported in 2018 that a senior would not be graduating with his class, due to multiple 10-day suspensions for vaping. Other schools believe out-of-school suspensions are counterproductive and take a different approach.
“When we catch kids with illegal substances, we do a five-day suspension with learning opportunities,” Steve Chamberlain, superintendent for the Hopkinton School District said. The out-of-school program is supervised, with students connecting to an adult mentor and given academic support. They return on probation and do a required learning activity such as researching substances, their effect on long-term health, etc. “to help them learn and understand.”
“Students return relatively current on academics, and parents appreciate that. Our overall vision is to change the behavior, not just punishment,” Chamberlain said. “In this way we exhibit care for families and students.”
Now the administration is trying to make Hopkinton one of several towns in the state with a “Tobacco 21” law, which would prohibit the sale/possession of any tobacco product to anyone under 21.
Mike MacFadzen, executive director of the Belknap Country Restorative Justice/Juvenile Diversion Program in Laconia, typically works with juveniles 12 to 17 years old who are caught at school using vape products. The punishment is usually 10 days suspension, but only five if they agree to do the diversion program.
A parent or guardian must attend the informational program, too, MacFadzen said, “So there’s no confusion between parent and child. We want to educate parents on the dangers of vaping, smoking weed, drinking.”
The diversion program takes a team approach, including the student, parents, teachers and coaches in the plan, depending on the student’s attitude and number of times they’ve been caught. Because incidents of vaping have been increasing in recent years, the program started in September 2018 after student resource officers (SROs), principals and administration determined they had to do more together.
MacFadzen said younger students are now being caught: “We see a lot more seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders.” Parents often buy devices and “e-juice” (liquid nicotine) for their kids, believing that they are safe.
Kicking kids out of school was having little effect, MacFadzen said, so now the school encourages peer-to-peer work, with students who have gone through the program and done the research talking about their experience to others.
Some kids are “definitely addicted” to vaping, he added. “They say, ‘I need to have it;’ they readily admit they’re addicted. They kind of have to suck it up and go cold turkey through withdrawal.”
Nicotine dependency is a physical chemical addiction. When users try to quit, withdrawal symptoms include irritability, depressed mood, restlessness and anxiety, to an intensity of mood disturbance “similar to that found in psychiatric outpatients,” according to the National Institutes of Health.
Teachers say they can see the difference in students who vape when they return to school after a break. They’re more restless and anxious, having vaped more over vacation. This is a reason why out-of-school suspensions can be counterproductive.
Nicotine is one of the most powerfully addictive substances, especially for those whose brains are still developing, said Albee Budnitz, MD, a retired pulmonologist from Nashua and Breathe NH board member.
“They could be good kids,” Dr. Budnitz said, “but their not-fully-developed brains are telling them to try it.” Compared to adults, he warned, nicotine has a more intense effect on young brains. This means they can get addicted much sooner and have a harder time withdrawing from use.
Get educated, set a good example
The health education requirement to graduate high school is a ½ credit or one semester, but textbooks often can’t keep up with the times.
In response to what the FDA and CDC has called an epidemic, Breathe NH created Vaping Unveiled, an educational program about the dangers of e-cigarettes, Juul, and other devices on still-developing brains and lungs.
After a Vaping Unveiled program, presenter Kim Coronis heard that a mother was rewarding her daughter for doing homework by buying her flavor pods for her Juul. One flavor pod has the same amount of nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes.
Dr. Budnitz said kids get mixed messages, with parents using e-cigarettes to quit smoking, and states legalizing recreational marijuana, which can also be vaped.
Kameo Chasse, coordinator of the Nashua Prevention Coalition, works closely with schools, presenting in health classes at the high schools; educating parents, teachers and coaches; and working with community partners such as Breathe NH.
“Parents are typically surprised that this is such a developing issue, with new devices constantly being developed,” Chasse said.
Parents are also shocked at what vape companies “can get away with” in terms of marketing to youth. Parents need to educate themselves and then have those conversations with their kids, she added.
“The belief that [e-cigarettes] are less hazardous than tobacco or are completely harmless is a very difficult hurdle to get over with juveniles especially,” said MacFadzen.
Is my child vaping?
Vaping dries out the nose so signs include more thirst and nosebleeds and craving more flavor. When your mouth is dry, food doesn’t taste as good. Vaping can also lead to pneumonia as tiny particles inhaled with vapor can trigger lung inflammation. Fingers may show yellow nicotine stains.
Unfamiliar devices in their backpacks or alterations made to clothes can also be vaping clues. Shapes range from pens to thumb drives to medical inhalers to lipsticks, or teardrop-shaped devices, that can be hidden in the palm of the hand. There is even “vapor wear”: hoodie drawstrings that are hoses to deliver vapor on the sly. Inventive kids may hide a device in a waistband and thread a hose through their shirt.
Mary Ellen Hettinger, APR is an award-winning reporter, editor and writer. She won a bronze award in 2017 from the Parenting Media Association for her news feature on perfluorochemicals in NH’s water supply. She is also the director of public relations and communications for Breathe NH.