CLIFTON PARK — As eighth-grade students in Amy Preston’s health class at Gowana Middle School huddled together in teams at their desks and pored over the decades-old cigarette advertisements that had been placed in front of them to analyze, they slowly began to realize something — the vintage advertisements looked suspiciously similar to the vibrant ads for electronic cigarettes that they were also examining.
“What do we know about nicotine?” Preston asked her students on day two of a multiclass lab that specifically covered almost every aspect of electronic cigarettes, from their ingredients to how they’re advertised.
“It’s highly addictive,” said one student.
“Nicotine causes cancer,” answered another.
Unlike traditional cigarettes or cigars, e-cigarettes require no combustion and produce no smoke and contain no tobacco. Instead, they boil liquids containing nicotine and salts that produce an aerosol cloud.
One brand specifically, the Juul, with its small, sleek and easy-to-conceal design, has given its name to the larger trend of young students using the device, or “Juuling.”
As the Shenendehowa Central School District grapples with a rising tide of students who use such devices both inside and outside of school, Preston and other district officials are trying to answer one question: how do they teach parents, students and staff members about a dangerous device that is easily accessible, utilizes addictive chemicals, and yet, until recently, has gone largely unstudied and unregulated?
A NEW TREND
Shen High School Principal Ron Agostinoni confirmed that e-cigarette use definitely is an issue at the school and that the district would be naive to think that it wasn’t.
Last year, the Food and Drug Administration reported that from 2017 to 2018, the number of high school students who used e-cigarettes had jumped up by 1.3 million.
Shen is a massive school district, with a student population often edging close to 10,000.
Agostinoni said while the district uses the amount of materials confiscated and the number of disciplinary referrals issued to keep a rough tally, he didn’t have specific numbers for exactly how many out of the 3,200 high school students vape. He estimated that it’s probably somewhere in the hundreds.
“It’s a concerning number. It’s not dozens. I don’t think we’re talking about five, 15, 20,” he said.
The issue, Agostinoni said, is obviously there. Juuls specifically are small, difficult to detect due to the lack of smoke and smell they give off, and can look like pens or flash drives.
Although the issue stares school district officials directly in their faces, Agostinoni said the solution is not as simple as cracking down on students.
If a student is addicted to nicotine, confiscating the device and putting him or her in detention will not keep them from continuing to seek out nicotine, he said.
“We want the student experience to still be the student experience. We want to treat our students like the young adults they are. If the kid is addicted, they’re going to continue that behavior. We’re just trying to make sure that we keep them safe,” he said.
Buildingwide adjustments have seen some success, such as posting monitors outside of restrooms, where students often use the devices, and implementing some sign-in policies.
The district has also hosted a number of public meetings focused directly on vaping and will host more in the future.
From what he’s seen in the high school, Agostinoni said the issue is being handled more effectively than it was a few months ago, mostly because he and his staff are learning about the specifics of the devices and keeping an open dialogue with students.
Unfortunately, he said, the solution is not totally in hand yet, and due to the rapid speed at which students are becoming addicted to the devices, it will probably get worse before it gets better.
“It’s not just kids these days,” Agostinoni said.
Patty Kilgore, director of school-based services at the Prevention Council in Saratoga Springs, said the rise of Juuling happened quickly, in less than five years.
Around 2015, she said, when electronic vaporizer company PAX Labs unveiled the Juul, there was an immediate and high demand for the device.
The company then received an influx of cash investments, primarily from tobacco companies, Kilgore said, allowing PAX Labs to manufacture more devices until there was a surplus in 2017, which is about the time students started getting access to Juuls in local stores, or online.
“It happened very, very quickly,” Kilgore said.
Now, Kilgore said, the Juuling issue has become a double-edged sword.
While health organizations try to keep young students from becoming addicted to nicotine, they also have to somehow teach teenagers that the products are being specifically marketed to them, despite a continued denial from electronic cigarette companies. Vaping from a Juul is widely equated to smoking as much as a pack of cigarettes a day.
“The kids are the ones this is being marketed to, not the adults. They want a lifetime consumer,” Kilgore said.
The companies that sell vaping devices have become skilled at developing a massive online advertising presence, primarily on social media applications including Instagram and Twitter, Kilgore said.
By utilizing those platforms, on which young adults spend hours each day, as well as using flavors that seem innocuous or intriguing such as mint, mango, or crème, the e-cigarette companies have found a ready and susceptible audience.
However, as the medical research into e-cigarettes grows, so does the preparedness of people who are trying to stop the trend from continuing.
While Kilgore agrees that the issue might get worse before it gets better, for now, school districts and health advocates have to continue to focus on educating both parents and students.
Kilgore herself does one to three presentations each week at schools about vaping and Juuling, and those presentations change week to week.
“It’s about trying to get them to understand what the truth is. They’re being lied to, basically,” she said.
IN THE HALLS
Katey Witz, an eighth-grader at Gowana and a student in Preston’s health class, has found herself in a situation at least once in which someone around her has a Juul. She has never taken anyone up on their offer when they ask if she wants to use it.
Witz says she has lost friends due to her refusals, as vaping habits are a red flag for her anyway. She doesn’t want to be friends with people who vape.
She sees people filming themselves smoking out of the devices on Snapchat, a social media platform that allows users to send pictures and videos to each other that self-delete after a few seconds.
“It’s everywhere, honestly. I know many kids who have made the bad decision of doing it,” Witz said.
While Witz first learned about nicotine in fifth grade, she explained that it was only during a recent health class where she learned that people her age are the prime targets of e-cigarette companies.
“These companies are really targeting teenagers and saying that there’s nothing bad in them,” she said about the Juul advertisements. “Even some of the ads we were looking at were specifically saying, ‘this is good for you.' ”
“One of the things I learned was that the cigarette companies actually managed to hold off the government in looking into what they were doing. That shocked me. I know now more about the tobacco industry than I ever have, and I’m only 14,” laughed Tommy Quinn, another eighth-grade student in Preston's class.
Quinn knows that, in reality, Juuls are not something to be laughed at.
Quinn’s grandfather died before he was born due to his smoking habit, and that personal connection to tragedy caused by smoking weighs heavily on him.
“My brother is in the high school, and it’s a really big and bad thing there,” Quinn said. “The fact that [e-cigarette companies] are trying to ruin people’s lives disgusts me. This is serious,” Quinn said.
On the administrative side of things, both Preston and Bill Luke, the assistant principal at Acadia Middle School, believe that their students realize that knowledge is power.
The goal, they said, is to reach kids while they’re in middle school, before they get to high school, where vaping is a larger issue. It’s crucial to show them now that the question of whether to vape or not vape shouldn’t even be considered, they explained.
In order to reach students across sixth, seventh and eighth grades, Preston, along with Shen’s two other middle school health teachers, Jessica Hull and Carol Funyack, collaborate on lesson plans related to vaping and change them according to how students respond to certain aspects.
The middle schools also plan to work with the Prevention Council to bring in additional education about vaping and Juuling, Luke noted, adding that as of recently, a committee made up of parents, school teachers and administration has been formed specifically to tackle the issue at Shen.
“It’s probably happening to some extent in the building, but it’s challenging to detect. We’re trying to be proactive,” Luke said.
Preston, citing the multitudes of people who have died or become ill from cigarette use over the decades, said the emergence of vaping gives her the uneasy feeling of tragedy on the horizon, another round of massive loss of life and health that her young students are right in the center of.
Casting a light on what she calls a false narrative from electronic cigarette companies and arming students with the knowledge that will make them realize what is truly being hawked at them is, at this point, the best shot Shen has at solving the Juuling problem and, on a larger scale, preventing another generation of nicotine addicts from being born.
“I’m just hoping that these kids see that sooner rather than later,” she said.