Teens and vaping: The unfiltered truth ...part 2
Possibly the most common criticism hurled at e-cigarette companies is the claim that they market towards people too young to smoke.
“I’m a middle-aged woman,” said Philip Simmons Middle School Principal Charla Groves. “I don’t need a watermelon flavored or cotton candy flavored anything. Those are the flavors in those pods that they’re selling. That is marketed towards teens.”
Large swaths of the evidence for this accusation (the sweet flavors inhaled, the device’s unassuming design) have most educators convinced, but seem to be subjective allegations.
In fact, the website for Juul, an e-cigarette company, has an age-gate to purchase their products that requires the last four digits of a social security number, a permanent address, and a name to prove that a prospective buyer is 21 years of age, three years over the age limit to buy e-cigarettes in stores. Conversely, third party websites do not have such strict requirements.
But, while there are no concrete studies at the moment proving e-cigarette companies built their products with the intent to sell to minors, the numbers do prove that the majority of teenagers are exposed to e-cigarette ads. According to a 2018 report from the Center for Disease Control, almost 70 percent of teenagers said that they were exposed to e-cigarette advertisements in 2014. Two years later, the number jumped up to 78.2 percent. Reports like this have been on the rise for several years and some Daniel Island area schools have noticed an increase in incidents, as well.
Bishop England High School Associate Principal Mary Anne Tucker said that she noticed vaping among the student body between two and three years ago. In the time since, there have been two dozen incidents by her estimation.
“It’s probably more prevalent than I would even think that it is and I think the kids really are not accepting the message that it is truthfully as harmful as it is,” she said.
On a hopeful note, Tucker said that her school is very aware of e-cigarettes, what they look like, and where students smoke them. At Bishop England, e-cigarettes fall under the standard drug and alcohol policy. Students caught could face suspension, disciplinary probation, and have to attend a counseling session to discuss addiction. On the matter of education, Tucker explained that vaping is a part of the school’s biology, physical education, and nutrition courses.
Further down Clements Ferry Road, Philip Simmons High School has faced the same problem, on a smaller scale. As a newer school, and as a new high school principal, Anthony Dixon said that the 2018- 2019 school year is the first time he’s encountered e-cigarettes, adding that he did not hear about them at PSHS prior to him taking the principal position. To his estimation, between seven and 10 incidents have occurred at Philip Simmons High.
“We’re preventative, we’re proactive, we’re looking into the facts, we’re addressing it,” Dixon said. “And we do it calmly, but swiftly.” The principal commented that he does not believe the problem is widespread and should not be sensationalized.
PSHS has several different approaches they utilize. In-school awareness is the main tool. Students are encouraged to tell an adult when they suspect that a classmate might be vaping, which Dixon asserts is a part of a culture of trust that they try to promote. Additionally, teachers know to be cautious of the areas where students are less supervised.
“We’ve been actively making sure we’re near bathrooms,” Dixon said. “We’ve changed some bathroom policies or procedures during more common times, like lunch, where students have a little more freedom and a little bit more time. We’ve kind of got on the preventative side of it.”
Outside of the classroom, PSHS tries to keep the parents in the loop at every turn. In several situations, the school administration has contacted parents of suspected e-cigarette users “to give parents the opportunity to parent,” stated Dixon. He also encourages parents to keep open communication with the school if they have any questions about e-cigarettes.
On the middle school front, Philip Simmons Middle School and Daniel Island School have seen four instances combined in the past two years.
Daniel Island School Principal Kori Brown stated that the first and only incident her school encountered with e-cigarettes was a confiscation from the last school year.
“I don’t know that it’s necessarily a challenge for us because I do think it is more of a high school issue,” she added.
Brown said that DIS treats vaping as a drug awareness issue. There isn’t any curriculum specific to e-cigarettes. In the standard programming, kids are taught to be aware “of the things that can be considered drugs and things that can harm you,” claimed Brown. She added that students are educated on “the difference between medications that are prescribed by a doctor that can help you and those that are not prescribed by a doctor.”
While Charla Groves does not believe that it is a widespread problem for her school, either, she does believe that it’s a problem that needs to be stopped before it expands. “I believe that the instances we have come across in our school are simply children trying,” she said. “I do not believe that we have Juul addicts. But, if we don’t do something about it now, we will.”
According to Groves, this is the first school year they have had any situations involving e-cigarettes. Three incidents of students caught with vaping devices have occurred.
“We take a hardline approach,” Groves said. “As soon as we get information or see anything occurring, we take action immediately. We follow our district guidelines and policy. I think because of that and because we are so consistent in our approach, I believe that will benefit us in the long run.”
Groves attempts to go into details with students caught vaping.
“When we have an instance where a student has an e-cigarette, a vapor pen, we share with them the information we have,” she said. “Like, ‘this is synthetic. That is going to damage your body in some way, shape, or form.’ It’s not grown from the Earth, so it’s going to damage your body somehow. You are 12 or you are 14. This can cause irreparable damage to your lungs. You do not know what you’re taking in.”
Philip Simmons Middle School Resource Officer Henry Richardson believes that stopping e-cigarette use early is an important factor to fighting it among older teens.
“Us as Americans, we allow things to become a norm so easily,” he said. “And I think that if you don’t jump on this, it’s going to be a norm, and everybody’s going to start to wash it away and let it go.”
To get a better feel for the teenage perspective on the issue, The Daniel Island News conducted an online, anonymous survey among local high school students (of the 120 respondents, four indicated they were middle school students). Approximately 90 percent of the respondents said that they have witnessed e-cigarette usage, with almost half saying that they have seen classmates vaping at school. Roughly a fourth of respondents said that they vape and over 80 percent say that it is a problem among kids their age. Half of the high school students who reported that they vape in school added that they regularly smoke in the bathroom. Seventy-three percent of the respondents believe that vaping is bad for them, and only 2.5 percent say that they did not know nicotine is in e-cigarettes.
When asked why they vape, high school student written responses ranged from the succinct (“phat clouds”) to the poetic (“I can do cool tricks”). But most, 64 percent, simply state they do it because they “like it.”
Another independent survey was conducted by a middle school in our area using the same questions from The Daniel Island News survey. In that survey, only grades 6 and 7 participated and less than half of the respondents (39.21 percent) claimed to have seen e-cigarette usage at some point. Additionally, of the 255 students who took part in the middle school survey, only seven indicated that they have vaped. Nearly 37 percent believe that vaping is bad for them and 2.3 percent said that it is not, although the majority of students in this age range did not respond to the question.
According to Mary Anne Tucker and Charla Groves, most students caught with an e-cigarette did not exhibit prior behavioral issues.
“It’s not just the kids that are frequent flyers in terms of detention and things like that,” said Tucker.
One looming question that hangs over any potentially harmful substance used by teenagers is one of consequence. Do they understand the risk? Every contact interviewed for this story said that they do not believe, or do not know if, students know the risks, with many adding that adults don’t know the risks, either.
“Teenagers -- just by virtue of the fact that they’re teenagers -- they’re risk takers,” said Tucker. “They’re willing to take the risk and not worry about the consequences because, surely, that will be much further down the road.”
“I think they know it’s not good for them, but I don’t think they know the full risk,” stated Dixon.
Working in partnership with local schools, including Bishop England High School, Philip Simmons High School, Philip Simmons Middle School and the Daniel Island School, The Daniel Island News conducted an anonymous, online survey among students. A total of 120 students took the survey, with the vast majority (97 percent) indicating they are high school students in grades 9-12. The results are posted in the following graphics. One area middle school did their own survey, using the paper’s questions. Those results, gleaned from 255 responses, are listed separately from the high school responses, beside each graphic in the slides above.