Maryville Director of Schools Mike Winstead said vaping, or use of e-cigarettes, among students has been more of a problem in the past year than traditional tobacco use has been over the past 10 years.
He’s echoing a national trend.
The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory Tues- day urging local restrictions on e-cigarettes, including taxes and indoor bans aimed at deterring young people from using. The advisory came a day after the National Institute for Drug Abuse issued new data showing nearly 21 percent of high school seniors say they vaped a nicotine product within the past 30 days, up from 11 percent a year ago. It’s the largest reported increase for any substance’s use among adolescents in more than 40 years.
“Today’s advisory is an alert to the nation that e-cigarettes are leading millions of youth into nicotine addiction and placing them at unacceptable risk of harm,” said Dr. Josh Sharfstein, a former Maryland health secretary who is now a public health professor and vice dean at Johns Hopkins University.
The 2017 Knox County Youth Risk Behavior Survey localized the statistics, which some say have likely climbed this year: Nearly 15 percent of Knox County high school students said they have used e-cigarettes, more than the rate of traditional tobacco use, like smoking or dipping.
Middle school use big, too
In Maryville City Schools, however, it’s more prevalent among the middle school-age students, according to Winstead, who said most of the vaping infractions have occurred among students in eighth and ninth grades.
“It’s definitely something we’ve had to crack down on,” he said.
“We’ve been fortunate in the past that we’ve had so few smoking or dipping infractions, but vaping has been an altogether different story, especially this year. We’ve had more vaping infractions this year than smoking infractions in all 10 years I’ve been here.”
Parental help is key
Part of the challenge is the varied forms e-cigarettes can take. Some, like the Juul, even look like a USB drive and can charge on a laptop.
Winstead said school resource officers have helped staff learn to identify the different kinds. When a student is caught, the infraction is handled the same way a tobacco infraction is: with a citation.
“That curbs it a lot because parents then have to pay a court cost,” Winstead said. “Parents stepping in and helping us with that has been the biggest deterrent, I think.”
Winstead said he thinks the frequency of infractions has been decreasing since the Food and Drug Administration announced in November a partial ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarette vapors in stores that aren’t age-restricted.
No infractions have occurred in Maryville schools this month.
More popular than smoking in Sevier County, too
Sevier County Schools Assistant Superintendent Debra Cline also said the district has seen an increase in vaping incidents over the last several months, compared to traditional smoking.
“The school system has offered programming through the Sevier County Health Department to staff members so that they are better informed about the issues of vaping as they work with students,” Cline said. “Our coordinated school health group is in the process of presenting prevention programming to students as part of our annual tobacco prevention carnivals.”
Knox County Schools battling problem, too
Backpacks filled with empty nicotine cartridges, hallway sales of e-cigarettes and bathrooms clouded with vapor — this is a typical day at Bearden High School in Knoxville, two students say.
“Almost everyone in the school has a Juul (e-cigarette),” said John, a 16-yearold junior at Bearden who would agree to be identified only by his first name. “They’re doing it every day, every minute, every chance they get.”
In Tennessee, only people 18 and older can purchase devices like a Juul. The problem, John said, is that seniors in high school are often 18 and sell them to their underage friends at an increased price.
“It’s very easy to sneak it anywhere — backpacks and even your pockets,” he said. “You can get away with doing it in class and cover it up under your shirt or up your sleeve.”
Juuls look a lot like flash drives and can even plug into your computer to charge, John said. He doesn’t use e-cigarettes, but his friend Capen believes the majority of students at Bearden do.
Campus layout presents enforcement challenge
South Doyle High School Principal Tim Berry said school faculty and staff have found discarded vape cartridges on campus and confiscated some they found in backpacks and cars, but they haven’t seen vaping become a big issue on campus.
Berry credited the low number of infractions to “increased and strategic supervision” on campus, but added the school’s large campus may prevent staff and faculty from finding out about every tobacco infraction.
“Our campus layout is similar to a junior college campus, with eight instructional buildings stretched across 88 acres of property,” Berry said. “So, monitoring and supervision can sometimes be very challenging.”
Berry said teachers monitor assigned supervision zones before school, during class changes and after school.
“We also have 137 high-tech cameras on campus, which has a tendency to discourage use in the majority of these supervisory zones. Our officers have indicated probable high use when traveling to and from school and in our restrooms, just like the old-fashioned way,” he said, referring to the use of tobacco in its traditional forms.
Knox County School Board reacts Vaping among Knox County Schools students is a matter the district has become more cognizant of, according to Board of Education Chairwoman Terry Hill, who said the district is recognizing it’s evolving into a “huge issue in our schools.”
“I’m very concerned (about vaping among students),” Hill said. “It’s not a behavior that is acceptable for our young people any place and especially not in our schools.”
Vaping appears to be sparking more and more infractions among the district’s middle school population, “which of course in and of itself as a standalone is very concerning,” said Hill, who pointed to Juuls’ ease of access, transport and concealment as key reasons vaping has gained popularity among that demographic.
Board members Patti Bounds and Tony Norman share Hill’s concern.
“I think it is a growing problem among our students,” Bounds said, “and I think it’s one that the schools are going to have to specifically address in the future.”
Bounds and Norman worry about what they see as a broad misconception that vaping is a safe alternative to smoking.
The information that Norman has indicates that “it’s just as bad from a health standpoint or worse,” he said.
All three board members advocate for more discussion about the district’s approach to policing electronic cigarette use among students.
Policy review committee members will revisit that approach during their meeting in January, according to Hill.
Norman aims to discuss what would be a “reasonable deterrent” for vaping.
“It just seems like we should develop some kind of additional means of offering a deterrent,” he said, though he doesn’t yet know what that would look like.
One key challenge: There are limits as to how much the district can curb student vaping, Bounds stressed.
“We can’t control whether students vape on their own personal time, but I do think we need to curtail the activity on school grounds or during school hours,” she said, “much like we did with nicotine or smoking in general.”
What is Knox County Schools’ policy?
Electronic cigarette use is explicitly prohibited by Knox County Board of Education policy, which states, “Students shall not use, possess, or distribute illegal drugs or alcoholic beverages or any tobacco products or electronic cigarette devices or be under the influence of illegal drugs or alcoholic beverages in school buildings or on school grounds, in school vehicles or buses, or at any school-sponsored activity at any time, whether on or off school grounds.”
The policy continues that students are not to “market or distribute any substance which is represented to be or is substantially similar in color, shape, size or markings to a controlled substance” on school property, in school vehicles or at any school-sponsored initiative regardless of where it’s held.
JUUL gives statement
Ted Kwong, of JUUL Labs, provided a statement to the News Sentinel, saying JUUL “shares a common goal” with the Surgeon General and other federal health regulators – preventing youth from initiating on nicotine.
“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products,” Kwong said. “We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated.”
Kwong added the company’s intent was never to have youth use JUUL products, and it has implemented an action plan to address underage use in conjunction with federal authorities.
“We stopped the distribution of certain flavored JUUL pods to retail stores as of November 17, 2018, strengthened the age verification of our industry leading site, eliminated our Facebook and Instagram accounts, and are developing new technology to further limit youth access and use,” Kwong said.
“We are committed to working with the Surgeon General, FDA, state Attorneys General, local municipalities, and community organizations as a transparent and responsible partner in this effort.”