Column: Vaping in the boys’ (and girls’) room

Associated Press File Photo

By MARTHA RASCHE

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.

Monitoring the Future is an annual survey of students in grades eight, 10 and 12 conducted under a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health. In 2017, 28 percent of 12th-graders, 24 percent of 10th-graders and 13 percent of eighth-graders said they had used an e-vaporizor in the past year.

E-cigarettes come in variety of sizes, including small ones that make it hard for teachers and school officials to detect. The devices heat liquid into an inhalable vapor that's sold in sugary flavors like mango and mint, and often with the addictive drug nicotine. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Liquid nicotine routinely is referred to by users and marketers as the more innocent-sounding vape juice, e-juice or e-liquid. When asked what they thought was in the mist the last time they used an e-cigarette, more than half of the survey respondents at every grade level said they thought just flavoring (no nicotine).

Adam started to smoke tobacco cigarettes at about age 16. (Is that too young? “Very much so,” he said.) During the year and a half or so that he smoked, he started vaping “here and there” as just “something to try.”

“It was cool, I guess,” he said.

He said he became addicted to smoking — “not extremely addicted, but I was addicted a little bit” — and eventually he bought his own vaping device to help him quit smoking.

Adam, who has a history of depression and anxiety, used to play sports to help him cope with life’s struggles. He always has played a lot of videogames as an “escape” from the real world. Then he picked up smoking as a coping mechanism, and now vaping helps fill that role.

“I did it for the nicotine to take the edge off, to simmer down, for the buzz,” he said.

But now, vaping for relief is no longer his primary motivation. “I just do it to do it,” he acknowledged.

He vapes about three times a week — with friends, as he sold his own device (for $60) because he needed the money. “It’s a bit of a social thing,” he said.

Of his friends who vape, he observed that “some used to smoke, some of them do smoke, some of them don’t and never will smoke.”

He takes issue with parents and other adults pressuring young people like himself not to smoke, vape or engage in other behaviors that adults see as risky.

“What I see is kids being pushed not to do things, so they get more and more curious about it,” he said. “So they want to try it because they want to know why people are telling them not to do those things.”

He thinks kids often start or continue smoking largely out of defiance.

“Just because someone starts it doesn’t mean they’re going to keep doing it,” he said, adding that smoking cigarettes made him feel “disgusting,” and he “matured out of it.”

Now his parents are concerned about his vaping. Despite what he might tell them, at heart he knows he should find healthier coping skills to replace it.

“I want to quit, but I know it’ll probably be a while before it happens,” he said.

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee and the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With funding from the health partnership, she writes about topics related to mental health. Visit her blogs at TheseAreOurStories.com. Email her at mtrasche@twc.com.

Mental health sessions

The Dubois County Public Health Partnership offers Mental Health First Aid training. One-day sessions are scheduled for 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 29, Nov. 14 and April 10. Two-day sessions are scheduled for 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Sept. 19 and 20 and Feb. 20 and 21; to receive credit for the course, one must attend both sessions.

The classes are held in the Memorial Hospital Medical Arts Conference Room, at 721 W. 13th St., Jasper.

The cost of the eight-hour training is $35 per person. The Dubois County Community Foundation pays registration for participants from nonprofit organizations.

To register, visit www.MentalHealthFirstAid.org and follow the link to the registration box. For more information, email mhfa.duboiscounty@gmail.com or call Dubois County Health Department Administrative Director Donna Oeding at 812-481-7050. 

 




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com