The use of electronic cigarettes -- particularly discreet "vape pens" -- soared at local high schools this year, with several districts disciplining two to three times more students for using the electronic nicotine devices than in previous years.
“It came on like a freight train out of nowhere,” Niskayuna athletic director Larry Gillooley said of the vaping trend, which has educators and health experts across the region, state and nation worried about one of the newest teen crazes.
The latest generation of e-cigarettes, with the popular Juul brand leading the way, easily disguise as flash drives and give off a much more discrete puff of vapor than other versions, enabling students to sneak hits throughout the school day.
In Saratoga Springs, for instance, administrators and a school resource officer this school year caught 99 students violating the district’s ban on tobacco products, which also prohibits e-cigarettes, more than twice as many as the year before, when 42 students were cited. Maura Manny, a district spokeswoman, said the increase in violations was driven primarily by vaping.
At Niskayuna High School, 16 out of 21 athletic code violations this year were vaping-related -- up from just four vaping incidents the year before. At Guilderland, 50 students were disciplined for vaping, meriting a minimum three-day suspension under the district's code of conduct.
While other school districts did not provide firm violation numbers -- all prohibit tobacco and e-cigarette use in their codes of conduct -- school officials unanimously agreed the most recent school year has seen an unprecedented increase in e-cigarette use.
In Saratoga, high school administrators closed a set of bathrooms that students were using for vape sessions during the school day. A Saratoga Springs High School student, who wanted to remain anonymous to avoid social backlash, said use of Juuls in the school is widespread both in bathrooms and, sometimes, in classrooms. She added that use is far more prevalent among boys, though they will lend “pokes” to girls who don’t own a Juul of their own.
The student said classmates use Juuls during study hall and while in the library, suggesting they are even more widely used than administrators realize. The high school student said upperclassmen sell Juuls to younger students, and she estimated that one-third of students in her advanced-placement classes have Juul devices.
“It’s a serious problem,” she said.
Research about the health effects of vaping is still emerging, but anti-tobacco advocates argue the tobacco industry is marketing the new products to teens, as evidence suggests the emerging market for cigarettes will continue to shrink.
National surveys of teen tobacco use indicate a long-term decline, especially in the use of cigarettes, but use of electronic cigarettes has climbed since they emerged as a new product over the past decade. Use of electronic cigarettes among high school and middle school students has fallen slightly over the past two years, with about 12 percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students reporting use of within the previous month, according to a June report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study did not, however, account for Juuling, which teens don't necessarily equate with vaping or e-cigarettes.
Schools in the area have started to add information about vaping and electronic cigarettes to health class curriculum, and a handful of districts this year hosted informational sessions for families about the health risks of vaping.
While Niskayuna students take health class in middle school, once they are in high school, they don’t return to a health class until their junior or senior year. When many of the high school upperclassmen last took a health class, electronic cigarettes had a fraction of the market share they now hold.
“When they get into health class and we talk about it: ‘Oh, I didn’t know that,’” said Maureen Trefethen, a Niskayuna health teacher.
Trefethen said when her junior and senior students took a risk behavior assessment earlier this year, about half reported having tried or regularly using vapes.
“That’s a lot,” she said.
Aside from educating kids in the classroom, school leaders are also trying to crack down on vape use through discipline.
Districts in recent years have added electronic cigarette use to the list of prohibited behavior in their codes of conduct. Some administrators are trying to take a particularly tough stand by suspending students for a first offense. Niskayuna this spring updated its athletic code of conduct — which unlike the code for all students, applies to student athletes off school grounds and throughout the year — to make possession of an electronic cigarette a violation punishable by suspension from games.
But even as districts intensified consequences, more and more students continued to get caught.
John Noetzel, a spokesman for South Colonie School District, said that while the code of conduct was edited in 2013 to include electronic cigarettes under the district’s tobacco and drug policy, earning students as much as a five-day suspension, the last two years have seen a sharp increase in violations.
“We’ve had many violations [this year] — dozens,” Noetzel said.
And even more students are likely getting away with it. The newer vaping devices — Juul particularly — cut a slim, concealable profile. Not only do they look like flash drives, they can even be charged in the USB port of any computer.
“They are so small you can hold it in your hand and no one knows,” said Gillooley, the Niskayuna athletic director.
The surge in vaping comes as teen tobacco use in New York reached a nadir. Statewide, smoking fell from 27 percent of high school students reporting cigarette use in 2000 to just 4 percent in 2016, according to the state Department of Health.
Overall, high school students' use of all tobacco products had been on the slide between 2000 and 2014 -- falling from nearly 34 percent of students reporting use in 2000 to less than 20 percent in 2014.
But recent data suggest use of vapes could turn teen tobacco use in the other direction: Overall in New York, teen use of all tobacco products — including electronic cigarettes — started to climb between 2014 and 2016, reaching 25 percent of students.
In schools, educators are waiting to see which the direction the trend will move.
“I don’t know if it’s hit its peak yet,” Gillooley said. “They need to see the negative aspects of it, and it hasn’t been out long enough for that.”
Dr. A. George Pascual, a Clifton Park pediatrician with the Community Care Physicians network, said that for about the past year, he has been asking patients ages 12 and older whether they are vaping. He said he too has seen an increase in use of vape products among his patients, including among middle-school students. He said the young vape users don’t appear to understand the seriousness of the health risk involved in using the products, or the risk of developing a long-term nicotine addiction.
“I tell them this is how cigarette and tobacco companies are going to get their hooks into you,” Pascual said. “They will get you hooked to nicotine, and then you will be that much more willing to take up other tobacco products.”
Pascual said a lot is still unknown about the health risks of the various chemicals embedded in the liquid nicotine pods, and educators, physicians and parents are still a long way from building the level of anti-vaping messages that helped turn teens away from traditional tobacco products.
Ultimately, though, Pascual said he thinks lawmakers need to step in to restrict access to vaping products if use by youths will ever be reined in.
“If it’s that much harder for kids to obtain it, maybe we will see less use,” he said. “As long as it remains the way it is, I don’t see how any amount of advice-giving, counseling, parenting and even disciplining will make a dent.”
Theresa Zubretsky, community engagement coordinator with Capital District Tobacco-Free Communities, also said the ease of access teens have to vaping products is fueling their proliferation. She said social connections to other students who have turned 18, coupled with the ability to buy products online, has allowed teens easy access the devices. As soon as her son turned 18 this year, she said, fellow classmates were asking for his help to buy tobacco products.
She pointed out that stores that sell only vape products and no actual tobacco are less regulated, and she argued the electronic cigarette industry is clearly marketing its products to young customers. She also cited anecdotes she has heard about students using Juuls in class and hitting their vapes a dozen times or more a day.
“This isn’t about the teenage angst of being 15. This is about nicotine addiction … We are always in the position of playing catch up with the next iteration of tobacco products or tobacco marketing,” she said. “Teachers, parents -- anybody who thinks they should be concerned -- have definite reason to be concerned.”