As Johnson County students head back to school, parents and administrators are again gearing up to help tackle the problem of e-cigarette use by teenagers both in and out of school buildings.
Since the introduction of e-cigarettes in the early-2000s, and the popular Juul in 2015, they have become increasingly popular with teenagers and are now the nicotine product of choice for those under 18, according to the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization committed to making tobacco use and nicotine addiction a thing of the past, according to its website.
And they’re being used by students in Johnson County too, particularly at the high school level. Buffalo High School Principal Gib Ostheimer said he and former Dean of Students Ryan Mader dealt with at least three or four students each quarter last year who were caught using an e-cigarette — often called vaping — in the school building.
“We know it’s an issue, and I believe the use is much higher than our numbers would show,” Ostheimer said.
A survey completed in 2018 by Johnson County 10th and 12th grade students supports Ostheimer’s hunch that the numbers are in fact higher than just those getting caught. The survey asked students in those two grades how frequently they had vaped in the last 30 days, and nearly 40% said they had vaped at least once and 25% said they had vaped at least 10 times. Just over 10% of those 10th and 12th graders said they had vaped more than 40 times in the last 30 days.
The 2020 version of the survey was not completed because of schools being shut down at the time, but a new version will be completed in the 2021-22 school year.
Students are typically caught vaping by a teacher, Ostheimer said, and are then referred to the principal or the dean, who get parents and law enforcement involved. Because tobacco use is illegal in any form for people under 21, a citation is written, the student receives at least one day of in-school suspension, depending on the number of offenses, and the student and their parents have a conference with administrators and law enforcement. A third offense requires completion of a tobacco cessation program.
While just a handful of students are caught in school, Ostheimer said, he and other administrators know that the problem is more wide-ranging.
In addition to the survey, Johnson County prevention manager Bill Hawley said that he’s heard many stories of high usage, such as students vaping as many as 60 times a day and that some are even vaping in classrooms when a teacher’s back is turned or when they have to step out of the room.
While the legal repercussions are stiff for students caught vaping in school, Hawley is most concerned that students and parents may not know how bad e-cigarettes are for health — especially when students are using them frequently.
“When youth or young adults are going through a pod or two pods of Juul a day, that’s a pack to two packs of cigarettes a day,” Hawley said.
In addition, e-cigarettes (depending on the variety) can contain at least 60 harmful chemical compounds, according to the Truth Initiative.
But the largest risk, Hawley said, is addiction. Because e-cigarettes contain nicotine, they are just as addictive as standard cigarettes.
“Youth, and perhaps parents, maybe just still don’t have a grasp on the amount of nicotine they’re ingesting through these various devices and just how addictive it is,” he said.
While it can be especially difficult to know that teenagers are using e-cigarettes — they don’t have the giveaway of cigarette odor — Hawley said it’s crucial for parents to have open and honest conversations with their kids in order to know if they are vaping.
If those conversations reveal that a student is using an e-cigarette, knowing where to get help is the most crucial step. And that help can come from Hawley — a Mayo Clinic-trained and -certified tobacco treatment specialist — and the Johnson County Prevention office or from a variety of apps aimed at younger people to help them quit smoking.
Hawley said that students can even get help at school using the resources he frequently provides for students. He said that he had even done some seminars about e-cigarettes — which were not well attended — in the past and would love to continue those if the schools think it would be beneficial for students and parents.
Superintendent Charles Auzqui said that the district is a tobacco-, drug- and alcohol-free district, but that if administrators and counselors feel there is a need for more education or resources on e-cigarette use, the district will find the money to make that happen.
“If there’s a need, then we’re going to support that,” Auzqui said. “We’ll find the funding for what that looks like and providing that preventative piece that helps support that. So, I am not opposed to any type of training based on needs in a building.”
While plentiful resources are available, Hawley said that the largest portion of e-cigarette prevention falls to parents continuing to have open and honest conversations with their children so they can know of usage before it becomes a bigger problem.
“Until it hits you and your home and your family and your son or daughter is deeply in addiction to nicotine by using e-cigarettes, Juuls, etc., it’s easy to ignore,” he said.