Oregon schools have banned tobacco for nearly a decade, but data show tobacco use on campus is growing.
Amid a federal investigation into electronic cigarette companies, schools are battling a growing trend of teens using vapor-based tobacco products, or "vaping" on campuses.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an estimated 1 in 5 high school students use smokeless tobacco products, or 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 happens on campuses and 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 at any given time you could walk into a bathroom and see it. Two years ago that wasn't the case."
One 16-year-old high school sophomore in Tigard, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he uses a vape pen "every day."
"You're exposed to it a lot when you come into high school," he said. "It's hard to find people who haven't done it."
He knows he's getting nicotine, and learned about e-cigarettes in school.
"People think cigarettes are nasty, but Juuls are a healthy alternative, so it makes it OK," the teen said, referring to Juul, a company that manufactures a popular and discrete line of e-cigarettes.
His parents know he regularly vapes. They don't approve, but that hasn't stopped him. He reported being able to buy the products at a convenience store once, where he wasn't asked for ID. Now he relies on older students to get him pens and liquid tobacco refills.
Another high school junior says he quit vaping about a month ago because it was negatively impacting his health, but said he's not positive he'll never pick it back up again.
"When I tried it, it made me feel better," the teen said. "I'd like to think I'll never touch it again."
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."
But 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.
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.
Juul, the e-cigarettes manufacturer, is best known for its device that resembles a USB drive.
"I see it in class," Madeline Gochee, a senior at Lincoln High School, said of seeing peers using Juul devices. "It's so present and has become so normalized. There are certain people where it's weird not to see a Juul in their hand."
While Oregon no longer sells tobacco to anyone younger than 21, Washington state's law raising the smoking age doesn't go into effect until 2020.
"My students say that seniors will drive up to Washington and come back and sell it," Jolley said.
Portland students gave similar accounts of peers crossing state lines to buy tobacco.
Students with access to a credit or debit card can also buy online from some sites, despite claims of age verification protocols.
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."
Some say 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 percent of Juul's Twitter followers in April 2018 were under 21.
In April, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with Massachusetts senator 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 states. "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 de-activating 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.
Portland Public Schools acknowledged the prevalence of vaping and Juuling in its schools, and took what some say is a hardline disciplinary approach to dissuade students from illegally using the products.
"Over the past year, our schools have noticed an increase in students vaping/Juuling or using e-cigarettes," Brenda Martinek, chief of student support services, stated in a letter sent home to parents. "Students who are found standing with students using these prohibited items may be considered involved in drug and alcohol related behaviors and also subject to the district's discipline policy."
One student says that approach is too broad, considering students often resort to bathrooms to smoke or vape, which are common use areas.
Senior Vivian Urness said she was ushered out of a high school bathroom when another student decided to use a vape pen in there.
"The second I walked out of the bathroom, the security guards were there and said, 'You have to get on the wall and walk in a straight line to the main office,'" she said. "The school handled the whole situation in a very antagonistic way."
In Newberg, parents also received a letter from the school district in late 2018 about e-cigarettes and vaping, addressing what the district called "a noticeable increase in students using and possessing these devices," and tips on how to talk to teens about the dangers of tobacco.
Newberg High School included e-cigarettes in its drug and alcohol curriculum, and brought in a well-known, longtime police officer to talk to students about the dangers of smoking and vaping, the Newberg Graphic reported in January..
On the Lincoln High School campus, vaping in campus bathrooms has had detrimental impacts on other students.
Students there say a gender-neutral restroom became the preferred spot for using vape pens and e-cigarettes. That meant that when students were caught, the bathroom was shut down for long periods of time, leaving others who rely on the gender-neutral restroom without access to facilities.
Lincoln High principals did not respond to requests for comment on the bathroom shutdowns.
Carmen Vintro contributed to this story.
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