Teen vaping: Head in the clouds
This story has been updated from its original version.
Braden Smith, Wilsonville High School Class of 2019, used his electronic cigarette like a cellphone. It became a habit.
Smith started using Juul — a brand that manufactures a popular and discrete line of e-cigarettes — his sophomore year.
While Smith no longer uses it, he said there are plenty of students who Juul (teens use the brand as a verb for vaping, using vapor-based tobacco products like the Juul brand) at school, though technically it's banned on Oregon's school grounds.
But recent data shows tobacco use on campus has been on the rise — in Lake Oswego and across the state.
Amid a federal investigation into e-cigarette companies that appear to be marketing toward youth, schools are battling a growing trend of teens vaping on campuses.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an estimated 1-in-5 high school students use smokeless tobacco products (smokeless products include chewing tobacco) such as e-cigarettes. The products are used by inhaling a sweet-tasting tobacco vapor that contains nicotine, the highly addictive substance found in cigarettes.
Vaping has become so commonplace among teens, Oregon students and teachers say it even happens on campuses — sometimes right in the classroom.
"We have kids charging their e-cigarettes on their Chromebooks in class," said Connie Jolley, a health teacher and drug prevention club leader with the Tigard-Tualatin School District. "We have kids taking hits in class."
Jolley says vaping became so pervasive, the drug prevention club at Tigard High School made it the focus of an awareness campaign.
"I have a son in the school and he talks about how often he sees it in class," Jolley said. "What I do know is (that) at any given time you could walk into a bathroom and see it. Two years ago that wasn't the case."
The issue of teens vaping isn't isolated to the Tigard-Tualatin School District or larger districts like Portland Public Schools. It appears to be common in Lake Oswego.
Students report seeing their peers Juul in school bathrooms, at football games, dances, in the car during lunch, on field trips, in the hallway and even in class.
"Students will wait for a teacher to turn their back and they'll hit their Juul," said a Lake Oswego student who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was really bad at first because teachers didn't even know what Juuls were. Students could set them on their desks and teachers would think they were flash drives."
LOHS principal Rollin Dickinson first became aware of Juuls about three years ago. "A lot of our initial efforts were intended to raise awareness with parents and staff that these discrete devices that looked and smelled innocuous enough, like USBs and mango, were actually harmful and highly addictive smoking devices," he said.
Because Juuls and other vaping devices don't smell like cigarettes, they're easier to conceal.
A recent graduate from West Linn High School, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he vaped on a field trip this past school year. While on the school bus, he even noticed other students passing their Juul back and forth, breathing the vapor into their shirts so no one noticed.
"It's funny. People like the danger of doing it when you're not supposed to," he said.
In 2017, Oregon tried to curb youth smoking by raising the minimum purchasing age for tobacco products to 21. The Oregon Health Authority calls the move "an evidence-based strategy that will help reduce youth initiation of tobacco."
Lake Oswego students said raising the age to 21 didn't deter them from purchasing vape products. Seniors would purchase the products for younger students before the age was raised to 21, and if students were lucky, the occasional convenience store or smoke shop would turn their backs on IDs of underage kids.
When a Lake Oswego High School student who spoke on the condition of anonymity started using Juul products as a freshman, he would simply get them from juniors or seniors who were already 18. Since Oregon no longer sells tobacco to anyone younger than 21 and Washington state's law raising the smoking age from 18 to 21 doesn't go into effect until 2020, some students decided to take quick trips to Washington to buy e-cigarettes and vape products.
"Kids can still go up to Vancouver and get stuff there," the LOHS student said.
Lawmakers say the prevalence of smokeless devices like e-cigarettes and vapor pens has increased teen tobacco use and students say it's easier than ever to sneak tobacco products on campus. "According to a student I have spoken with our school bathrooms, for example, have become taken over by illicit Juuling," said LOSD school board chair Rob Wagner, who is also a state senator.
That's due largely to vaporized tobacco devices that have been manufactured to be so discreet, they don't resemble cigarettes and instead look like USB data storage devices, which are widely used in academic and professional settings. The devices often are marketed as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes, but the products still contain nicotine. What's more, the products deliver flavored, often sweet-tasting vapor, making them far more palatable than traditional cigarettes to minors.
"These companies use marketing strategies that target youth and work to get them hooked early — including marketing exotic flavors," Wagner said.
Juul is best known for its device that resembles a USB drive.
Smith was never attracted to the flavors, but rather the device's sleek look. He said they are also reliable and easy to charge.
An 18-year-old female from West Linn, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she likes Juul because the look is more appealing than other brands and it can be carried anywhere.
"It's low-key; it's hidden," she said.
The LOHS student said the flavors make vaping much more attractive than traditional tobacco. "My friends and I pretty much only used the mint and mango flavors," he said.
The WLHS grad even described the first time he tried the cucumber flavor as "life-changing."
The cucumber flavor and other fruity flavors have since been removed from store shelves, though all flavors are still available online on Juul's website through age-verification technology that aims to block people under the age of 21 from purchasing products.
"I think the flavors definitely had a big thing to do with it," the WLHS grad said, adding that he and his friends also like the head rush from the nicotine, but the flavors provide an extra bonus — which is why he thinks teens get hooked on the product. But both WLHS students don't think that eliminating flavors would deter teens from vaping. They think, by now, many teens are addicted and just want their "nicotine fix."
E-cigarettes, which are meant to reduce cigarette smoking, have actually contributed to a rise in underage tobacco use, according to the FDA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists e-cigarettes as the "most commonly used tobacco product among U.S. middle and high school students."
In Clackamas County, 9.8% of high school juniors reported using cigarettes in 2016, while 17.6% reported using vaping products. In 2018, the number of juniors using vaping products increased to 25%, while those who used cigarettes dropped to 6.5% — both slightly higher rates than recorded among juniors in the state of Oregon, according to the Oregon Health Authority's Student Wellness Survey.
According to Yale Medicine, youth are particularly susceptible to addiction from vaping due to their still-forming brains, which are more sensitive to the "reward system" — or mesolimbic dopamine — hit provided by the nicotine.
Wagner has a few suggestions for parents to help curb teen Juul use: "Honest conversations and tracking student purchases. It helps if parents engage with schools to explore supports for their kids," he said.
Wagner and others believe companies like Juul are complicit in teen tobacco use and target young people with their ads.
A research letter published by JAMA Pediatrics in May noted that more than 80% of Juul's Twitter followers in April 2018 were under 21.
Some WL-WV students say they picked up Juuling because they saw celebrities posting pictures of Juuling on social media and thought it was "cool." Others said it was a social fad appearing in "cool" and "funny" videos from a popular Snapchat account.
A Lakeridge student who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he was intrigued after vaping became popular among his friend group. "I was curious, and decided to try it out," he said. "It eventually became a habit from there."
The two male graduates from WLHS said their own posts were shown on the account before it was shut down. They were at a restaurant doing homework on TI84 calculators and wrote "Di4j," representing "Do it for Juul," with the calculator and put their Juuls next to it to make it appear like they were in class.
"That's what I think boosted it to get popular," one of the male teens said. "It was literally just videos of 16-year-olds vaping."
In April, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with Massachusetts Sen. and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, were among nine senators who wrote to Juul Labs Inc., questioning the company's partnership with "big tobacco" and requesting data about the company's advertising purchases, which they say are targeted toward teens.
Wyden and Merkley say they suspect Juul purposefully marketed its products to teens. Other practices, like introducing new flavors with new nicotine levels, may have violated FDA regulations.
"The ever-increasing popularity of Juul is clearly evident from your sales data — with Juul sales increasing 641 percent between 2016 and 2017, from 2.2 million devices sold to 16.2 million devices sold," the senators' letter to Juul CEO Kevin Burns stated. "While you and your investors may be perfectly content with hooking an entire new generation of children on your tobacco products in order to increase your profit margins, we will not rest until your dangerous products are out of the hands of our nation's children."
In 2018, in response to federal pressure to curb e-cigarette use among youth, Juul committed to deactivating its social media accounts and stop selling its sweet-flavored products to vape shops and retailers.
Still, state and federal efforts to curb teen smoking and vaping may not be working.
The LOSD school board and district administrators are aware of the epidemic of students using Juuls and other vaping devices in school, and are working on fixing the problem.
One LOHS student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has firsthand experience being caught using a Juul on campus. "The school resource officer walked in and saw me using the Juul, and that was it. I received a one day in-school suspension," he said. "It was definitely a wake-up call for me."
After the suspension, the student's parents took him to a class to teach him more about the dangers of nicotine use. "After I learned more about what it can do to your body, I realized I don't want to have to deal with those effects on my body, especially when it comes to athletics," he said. The student no longer uses Juul products, but still sees them in use by friends and peers.
According to LOSD policy, if a student is found using any tobacco product on campus, the smoking or vaping device is confiscated, and disciplinary action is taken. This can be as minimal as an in-school suspension or as serious as expulsion. School and/or community service may be required, and a referral to law enforcement through the School Resource Officer may be made. Parents are notified of all violations involving their student and action taken by the school.
Wagner believes the school board can help prevent vaping in LOSD schools. "It's important that the school board supports our administration with policies to address youth nicotine addiction," he said. "From statewide research it is clear that Juuling has become an epidemic. We need clear policies regarding sanctions, clear communication with students and guardians, and resources to help with cessation."
The LOSD's Tobacco-Free Environment policy actually requires that resources like these are available to students and staff. "Information about community resources and/or cessation programs to help staff and students overcome tobacco product use will be provided," reads the policy. "Staff responsible for teaching tobacco product use prevention will be encouraged to collaborate with agencies and groups that conduct tobacco product use prevention education and to participate in ongoing professional development activities that provide basic knowledge about the effects of tobacco product use."
According to Dickinson, many students at LOHS remain undeterred in their vaping.
"Though we have increased monitoring of certain spaces, have engaged in education efforts, and have had to engage in discussions with students and families when students get in trouble for violating our school district policies for use or possession, we recognize that young people are still engaging in this behavior, whether on campus or not," Dickinson said. "I obviously worry about young people becoming addicted to nicotine and being exploited by companies that don't really care about them."
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