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An in-depth view of the vaping epidemic

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*Names have been changed to protect identities.

It was 10:43 a.m. on May 16, around the end of brunch. The AP English Language and Composition exam was taking place in the Auxiliary Gym. I [Amanda Su] was waiting outside of Officer Katie Williams’ office, hoping to conduct an interview with her about the vaping epidemic that has spread across high schools throughout the nation. Then, the fire alarm goes off. I groan, thinking that some stupid kid probably pulled the alarm to avoid taking their AP exam.

Immediately, Officer Williams — who had been in the middle of a conversation in her office for the entirety of brunch — runs out of her office and yells, “Second floor, boys bathroom. Vaping.” Principal Dave Kravitz and Assistant Principal Kellie Hoover instantaneously, simultaneously, appear from behind the corner of a front office hallway, and all three of them start running to the 2000 building, making their way through the crowds of students going to the field who were all following “fire protocol” and whispering about what AP test must be going on and who pulled the alarm to get out of it.

Stalking closely behind them, I run with Kravitz, Hoover and Williams to the 2000, avoiding the stares of teachers as I sneak into the building everyone else is running out of. When Kravitz, Hoover and Williams open the door and rush into the restroom, I catch a whiff of a very conspicuous artificial strawberry smell.

Unsuccessfully attempting to find a hiding spot in the empty, open hallway, I wait until Officer Williams comes out of the bathroom before I chase after her, make my presence known, apologize for stalking her, ask to reschedule my interview and begin to ask, “Was that because …”

“Yup,” she said. The students were never caught.

WHAT ARE “E-CIGARETTES”?

E-cigarettes, or “vape pens” (among other names), are devices containing nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals in the form of a liquid released as an aerosol. They are usually comprised of a battery, a heating component and a place where liquid is held. The aerosol is produced when the liquid is heated, and e-cigarette users, and on some occasions bystanders, inhale this aerosol into their lungs.

These devices come in various shapes and sizes, sometimes resembling cigarettes, cigars or pipes. Others look like pens, USB flash drives and other miscellaneous everyday items. Aside from nicotine, e-cigarettes can be used with marijuana and other drugs.

THE RISE OF “VAPING” AMONG HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS

E-cigarettes have mainly been marketed by manufacturers and public health experts as devices that help adult smokers quit smoking and, according to Ashley Gould, the chief administrative officer of JUUL, are created and sold solely for that purpose.

“We do not want kids using our products,” she said to the New York Times. “Our product is not only not for kids, it’s not for non-nicotine users.”

In order to purchase an e-cigarette, one needs to be at least 21 years old; online sellers require purchasers to check a box confirming they are at least 21 years of age.

But this raises the question as to why the rapidly expanding vaping industry has released so many products and campaigns that seem to be marketed towards youth. Most notably, the many flavors associated with vaping, the most common of which are mint and mango, have inspired the greatest amount of backlash. But vaping cloud contests, Vaprwear, a line of clothing and backpacks promising easy concealment of vaping devices, as well as labeling that make the e-juice look like candy wrappers, have all played a part in making vaping the trend that it is.

VAPING AT DOUGHERTY

Dougherty is no exception to this national trend.

“What we’ve noticed is hundreds of students in high schools mostly — and a little bit here and there in our middle schools — have been caught vaping.” San Ramon Valley Unified School District Superintendent Rick Schmitt said. “Hundreds of cases where three years or, five years, ago, they didn’t even exist.”

The sudden onslaught of incidents of vaping has contributed to a dynamic of adaptable students and an on-guard administration desperately trying to both address the safety concerns of illegal substances on campus, and educate the public about its harms.

“There’s always some students deciding to make poor choices and deciding to either drink on campus or bring alcohol or drugs on campus — but not as widespread as this,” Kravitz said.

When it comes to what students and teachers think about the magnitude of the vaping epidemic at Dougherty, there is a clear discrepancy. While 173 of 376 students surveyed (46 percent) believed that somewhere between 31 and 70 percent of the school’s student body vapes, 16 out of 66 teachers surveyed (24.24 percent) believed that to be true. On the other hand, 105 of 376 of students surveyed (28 percent) and 30 out of 66 teachers surveyed (45.5 percent) believe under 20 percent of the student body vapes.

Most students surveyed seemed to believe that a smaller percentage of the grade vapes than of the entire student body — that is, students generally believe that vaping is a huge problem, but not in their grade.

Most of the teachers and administration we interviewed — we interviewed teachers and admin who have more experience dealing with students who vape — seemed to have one idea in common. As articulated by Assistant Principal Kim Vaiana, “it’s a lot smaller than people think it is.”

Health teacher Athena Agustin-Vadney shares her reasoning for this belief: “I know not everybody [vapes] because when I talk about it in class people are thinking it’s absurd that anyone’s even doing it so if there’s that many people that are thinking this is crazy, then it’s not everyone.”

The opinions of the students we interviewed on the percentage of the student body who vape were wildly different than our accumulated data, however. It is important to note that we only interviewed students who vape and surround themselves with people who vape, so their perceptions were likely biased by the fact that most of the people they regularly interacted with also participate in vaping culture. The group that we interviewed agreed on this assessment: around 80 percent of the school has tried vaping at least once, 35 percent of students own a device and 60 percent vape regularly.

Another trend we noticed while interviewing teachers is that they often hear that it happens but seldom catch any students vaping.

“I have no idea, because you guys keep talking about it being an issue, and I personally didn’t see any,” noted Chinese teacher Crystal Jen. “It seems that people keep talking about it, and it seems like its many students are doing, but I’m not sure.”

When asked how they got into vaping, most students simply stated, “My friend,” with the exception of one student, junior Blake*, who said she was introduced to it by her aunt. Indeed, nearly all the students we interviewed — across all grade levels — credited their entry into vaping to their social groups.

“I was in seventh grade and the eighth graders were kinda like the ‘cool kids’ and they used a humidifier, and I thought it was kinda cool to just like suck on it and blow the vapor. And they kinda like figured out about other pens and stuff so that’s how I kinda got into it,” freshman Casey* said.

Senior Charlie* admitted that peer pressure had played some role in her introduction to vaping: “I tried it, I hated it at first, but then everyone kept doing it [so I did too].”

She equates vaping to “the Silly Bandz of high school,” implying that it blew up nationwide the same way the rubber bracelets did nearly eight years ago.

Vaping devices are widely available to and easily purchasable by students through various means, despite the fact that people under 21 years of age aren’t allowed to purchase vaping paraphernalia. A general consensus among students that we interviewed was that certain locations do not verify age when vaping purchases are made. Online retail sites like eBay and Amazon also sell vaping devices and pods without verifying age.

There are also students at school who sell vaping devices and vape pods to their peers, according to freshman Cameron*: “There was someone in my Spanish class. He sold JUULs. I was good friends with him so I tried one of the JUULs and I bought one from him.”

During the school day on DV’s campus, students often find opportunities and locations to vape, aided by the easy concealability of vaping devices. Senior Hayden* even describes vaping as an “excuse to get out of class.” The most notorious locations for vaping include restrooms around the school — notably the boys bathroom in the 2000 and 4000 building, both of which are upstairs.

According to senior Gale*, “[Vape pens] are so small and easy to hide that people do it anytime, anywhere.”

In fact, students have even vaped in classrooms in the middle of a period, often not to the knowledge of their teachers.

“I found out one kid actually was vaping in my class, literally [in the] first week of school. I was walking around, helping people out, and it turns out this person was waiting until I [turned] to help someone [to] inhale and then waited until I turned back again to let it out,” Mr. Evan Liddle, a social science teacher, commented.

A parent of a child in his class eventually informed Liddle of the incident.
However, as concealable as the devices are, there have been cases when students have not been discreet enough.

“I’ve caught about four,” Drama teacher Mr. Paul Vega said. “A couple were outside of class — they had asked to leave. One just had the equipment and because they were participating in a class activity, it fell out of their bag. For the others, I saw it, the smoke.”

Shortly after, Vega reported the students to administration.

COMBATING VAPING AT DOUGHERTY

Although vaping rarely sets off fire alarms, teachers and administrators have expressed their concerns over vaping affecting student safety, education and wellbeing on campus.

“Every time there’s a disciplinary action we spend time on it because [we want to educate students.] It’s not just ‘here’s your ticket and leave.’ It’s a conversation that we have with them, their family. It takes time,” Assistant Principal Kim Vaiana said.

“And that might be time when we could be in a classroom and observing what’s going on and the learning that is happening in there. It could be a time when we could be out at brunch time talking with other students. It could be another time for us to do other things.”

Officer Williams also noted, “My biggest problem is when kids tell me, ‘I don’t even use the bathrooms at school anymore because there’s so much vaping.’”

As such, administration and the district have been working hard to crack down on the issue to promote campus safety. They primarily receive tips about vaping incidents through an anonymous tip line that was launched this year and have successfully caught students with the devices on campus, primarily in the bathrooms. And although the school cannot regulate student activity off campus grounds, it does have some jurisdiction over monitoring student activity while they walk to and from school.

“I think the main thing is thinking what would actually prevent them from bringing it to campus. I could tell them don’t vape, but some kids are going to make their choices whether I agree with them or not. My main concern is don’t do it here. You’re disturbing everyone else,” Williams said. “You’re supposed to be able to come to school and not have to worry about drugs, guns, sex, any of that stuff on school campus. And my number one job here is safety for the campus.”

From a legal standpoint, if students are caught with a vaping device by Officer Williams, they get a ticket, are sent to court and could be heavily fined. Regarding school disciplinary protocols, however, although there have been cases when students have been suspended for more extreme offenses — the details of which could not be revealed — the administration mainly hopes to combat the issue through education.

“We do progressive discipline, which means that if you do something and then you do it again, it progressively gets more strict,” Vaiana said. “But what I really want to say, that covers the idea of discipline and what we do, is that everything we do is really meant to be a learning opportunity more than the consequences that go with it. Educational law is [civilly] based rather than [criminally] because the idea is that you’re looking at the person. It’s really about education, not penalty.”

HEALTH EFFECTS AND EDUCATION

According to the Center for Disease Control, e-cigarettes deliver nicotine without the tobacco and cancer-causing tar found in regular cigarettes. However, despite e-cigarette aerosol containing fewer toxic chemicals than regular cigarettes, vaping liquids also contain various harmful substances. These include volatile organic compounds; propylene glycol and glycerol that can form carcinogenic compounds when they are heated; Diacetyl, which has been linked to “popcorn lung,” the scarring and obstruction of the lungs’ smallest airways; heavy metals — nickel, tin and lead; and, of course, nicotine.

Although there hasn’t been a significant amount of research done on e-cigarettes, what scientists do know for certain is that the nicotine in e-cigarettes is still highly addictive, toxic to developing fetuses and harmful to adolescent brain development — which continues into the early to mid-20s, according to the CDC.

Out of the eight-day drug unit in freshman health, around two days are dedicated to education on vaping, according to Agustin-Vadney. What’s challenging for health teachers, however, is the lack of knowledge available about the long-term health effects of using e-cigarettes, considering they haven’t been around for long enough for any those effects to manifest. Because of this, Agustin-Vadney predicts that teenagers are less likely to be deterred from vaping, given their “affinity for instant gratification.”

According to her, students who vape are “high-risk” for nicotine addiction due to the high nicotine content in e-liquid, the liquid in an e-cigarette; a JUUL pack contains more nicotine than a pack of cigarettes. The “smoke” produced by e-cigarettes is not vapor, contrary to popular belief, but aerosol, which introduces another unknown factor to the effects of vaping. The students in health classes, at least this year, are taught this along with the rest of the ingredients that are commonly in e-juice. Agustin-Vadney said that certain flavors contain ingredients that are cytotoxic, or toxic to cells, and the students are made aware of this.

“VAPE SCHOOL”

In order to combat vaping at Dougherty, and across all high schools in the district, Agustin-Vadney is working with the district on an optional monthly Saturday-school program that was implemented this school year, referred to by students as “vape school.”

“In lieu of a suspension, which is never really proven to be a deterrent or add value to a student’s journey through high school, we’ve created a four hour session which [consists of] education around vaping and what it is and what it isn’t. And the good thing about that is when we run Saturday sessions and test drive that, the state pays us to do that,” Schmitt commented. “So we’ve created some vaping programs to help educate students of the dangers of all types of drugs — but especially vaping because it’s risen to the top and people think it’s a healthy and safe alternative [to cigarettes]. And that’s not true.”

According to Agustin-Vadney, the program is a “four hour long intensive class where [students] learn more about what’s really in these vape products and addiction to nicotine.”

“I want them to know because it’s basically [this] generation’s version of the tobacco epidemic. [It’s] a different package but it’s the same poison,” Health teacher Mr. Brad Lehto explained.

“We do an educational course on the weekend for people who have been caught vaping, as opposed to disciplinary action, [because] we’d rather educate them because at its core, we just really don’t believe that most people, if they knew about [the harms of vaping], would do that.”

Agustin-Vadney, along with others involved in this program, are currently in contact with someone who is an expert in helping people quit tobacco and are trying to add this person to the Saturday vape education program in order to make it more effective. Aside from helping guide students away from vaping, the program is also beneficial to teachers, Agustin-Vadney said, because it helps them get an idea of why students vape and how to combat the problem.

STUDENT FEEDBACK

It is true that “vape school” is beneficial to the district in the sense that it could bring in more funding. However, students who have been to vape school have expressed the ineffectiveness of it as a measure to “change their minds.”

Junior Sage* described it as a way “to get less of a punishment.” Cameron even stated that vape school was “fun” because you’re able to “vape in the session” — or at least get away with it. Sophomore Frankie* noted that “Someone giving a slideshow is not going to help someone who is addicted to nicotine quit.”

The students that we interviewed seemed rather unfazed by the disciplinary consequences of vaping, seeing as the main “consequence” is vape school.

When asked whether or not they would stop vaping if the punishment were more severe — for example, expulsion, students said they would stop vaping on campus but would continue to do so on their own time outside of school.

In general, students also were either relatively unaware of or apathetic about the potential vaping health concerns. After we asked them what they perceive the health effects of vaping to be, some casually commented, “Oh, I don’t know. Cancer or something right?”

Senior Emerson* did note that “It lowers your endurance. It’s difficult to run,” and mentioned addiction to nicotine as a potential problem, but not one she personally experiences.

As often as students are vaping now — several times a week and several times a day, most of the students interviewed, when asked whether they felt they were addicted to vaping, stated that they don’t feel that they’re “addicted.”

Charlie mentioned that although she doesn’t consider herself addicted, “if someone is holding a device, [I’ll ask] can I hit your tool? It’s not like it’s the only thing I think about. But if it’s present I’ll take it.”
Emerson described it as “addiction without withdrawals.”

E-cigarettes are meant to wean cigarette-users off of the carcinogenic habit, so the natural assumption is that vaping is not as harmful as its older counterpart. There has been expressed concern of the possibility that this relationship can also reverse, and vaping can become a gateway drug to smoking.

But in a group interview, when students were asked whether or not they would ever try smoking, the students’ answer was a instant, simultaneous, resounding “NO!”

However, according to Lehto, despite the lack of cigarettes’ appeal to students, vaping is “cracking open the door” and in a “weak moment, students might think ‘eh just this once’ and that’s all it really takes [to get them into smoking].”
“Nicotine is arguably the most addictive substance on the planet. So, no matter how that’s introduced to you, once your brain wants it again, eventually you’re going to find yourself in a situation where you’re out of juice or your pen dies, or you leave it at home, and then you’ll take it in any form you can get it. Whether it be cigarettes or cigars, even chewing tobacco. And now, you’re in my generation’s problem,” Lehto continued.

WHY ARE STUDENTS VAPING?

Several teachers have speculated that perhaps there is a “cool factor.” Students just want to rebel and the easy concealability and accessibility of vaping devices have made it easier for them to do.

“Through all decades of teenage years, people are always trying to do something that they’re not supposed to do and seeing if they can get away with it,” Vaiana said.

Liddle related the rise of vaping among high school students to his own experiences as a high schooler with the rise of marijuana.

“I used to always kind of think of these things to be [associated with] students who don’t feel like they have a future. Because that’s why a lot of kids in my high school [used drugs]. They were kids who thought: ‘well, I’m never going to get out of here. I’m going to be stuck here forever. I’m going to be living in my parents’ house until 30. My life is going to suck, so who cares if I smoke some weed or whatever? Or who cares if I get stoned everyday before class? If I get an F, who cares? If I caught or suspended, who cares because I’m not going anywhere in life,’” Liddle said.

“But I feel like the situation is a little different here, and maybe it’s because of the Dougherty culture. I don’t feel like this attitude is as prevalent here. Maybe students think, ‘I don’t have freedom because my parents want me to do all these things, and I have to go this school and I have to get these grades, so shouldn’t I be able to have some freedom in this one aspect of my life, perhaps?’”

Lehto also suggested that the high stress culture at Dougherty might be a reason why students vape. Charlie can confirm this, stating that vaping “calms your nerves and makes you feel relaxed. I do it for the feeling.”

However, Lehto noted that the perception that vaping reduces stress is misguided: “[Nicotine] is a stimulant, and stimulants don’t help you relax. They wind you up. So what they think is a relaxing effect is just their brain stopping its screaming at them for a few minutes for more nicotine. So it’s a distorted causation, and they think they’re relaxing, but they’re really just stressing themselves out … Putting these substances in your body, its an illusion, and that’s all it is.”

But most students, when asked why they continue to vape, noted the social aspect.

“I only do it with friends. It’s a pretty socially driven activity for me. We hang out in people cars or at parks and just chill,” junior Sam* said.

“I usually do it at people’s houses or in their cars. It’s always at group hangs, I don’t do it alone. I don’t [vape] very often … it’s really a group thing for me. Some fun with friends,” Sage affirmed.

Based on all our interviews, it seems that students don’t perceive vaping in the negative light that teachers and administration have. Many view it as a way to have fun, and the possible negative health effects don’t outweigh the momentary euphoria.

On the way vaping impacts people’s lives, Cameron commented, “The thing is if you want it to let it change you, you can. With a bunch of people, they can’t control themselves … But, it all really depends if the person has self-control and knows how to handle it. Nowadays, people who see other people vape automatically think that they are bad people and don’t have good [morals]. A lesson for everyone out there is just because someone does an action like this, it doesn’t change them as a person or affect their personality. It’s their risk that they decided to take, and it doesn’t change who they are and what they’re like. If they start having problems, help them. Don’t be afraid that they’re like a different species. Try to help them get back to their old self.”

Whether or not the vaping epidemic at Dougherty will end is hard to say. Administration is working to combat the problem. Williams hopes to continue to host drug presentations for parents, educating them about the variety of vaping devices. Teachers are continuing to strive to educate students about the harms of vaping.

But overall, students don’t see any impetus to change their habits.

“I have no reason to quit,” Charlie said. Everyone else we interviewed with her nodded in the back.

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Amanda joined the Tribune in her sophomore year because she wants to pursue journalism as a career and loves telling stories. In her sophomore year, Amanda was a Student Life Editor and was promoted to Managing...

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Elisa joined the Tribune because she thought she needed to take advantage of the seventh period as a freshman. She has fallen in love with storytelling and credits journalism for giving her some of the most...

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An in-depth view of the vaping epidemic