Lexington School District Weighs In On Teen Vaping

Jan 01, 2020

Before the rise of vaping, tobacco use had been virtually abandoned by today’s generation. Now, parents and administrators have a new challenge on their hands as vape pens are easier to obtain by middle and high school aged individuals. Additionally, thanks to vape pens, marijuana use on school grounds has grown inconspicuous, as THC can be vaped as easily as nicotine. However, even with the rise of vaping, many kids don’t fully understand what they are inhaling.

For Lexington R-V School District RN, Cynthia Riker, who has been a nurse for nearly a decade, vaping first became a noticeable problem during the spring semester of 2018. Once it became an issue, the district immediately began in-class education to address the topic. Students were informed of the definition of vaping and the substances it contains, such as cancer-causing metals and arsenics. Many teens are not aware they are literally smoking nicotine …they believe vaping is healthier than cigarettes. 

Riker said the district’s School Resource Officer (SRO) began investigating when faculty heard rumors of vaping and tobacco products on school grounds. These products were eventually confiscated from students. The prevalence of vaping at school is more common than not, according to Riker, to the point where students vape on school buses and inside the classroom.

Truth be told, tobacco vaping wasn’t the only concern. “We were worried about the fact they were also vaping marijuana,” Riker said. “That seems to be our area’s drug of choice.” Lip balm laced with THC (known on the street as wax or butter) is another concern. “It’s not just a tobacco issue. We are concerned about what they are knowingly or [unknowlingly] inhaling,” she said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that while tobacco cigarettes, prescription opioids, and alcohol use are declining among teens, vaping marijuana and nicotine is on the rise. The NIDA also reports that among high school seniors, more than 20 percent reported vaping marijuana in a survey conducted by Monitoring the Future (MTF), a study that records the behavioral patterns of Americans from adolescence to adulthood. 

As it becomes more popular, one of the greatest health hazards of vaping is misinformation. Thanks to tobacco cessation efforts, today’s youth know all about the dangers of cigarette smoking. However, there is so little research and information on vaping. As a result, many young people don’t realize their vape pens could be just as dangerous as traditional cigarettes. Education in the classroom gives students a rundown of what medical experts know: vape pens contain pesticides, ammonia, metals, and carcinogens. These substances are known to be deadly due to the decades of research on smoking cigarettes and all the ways they ruin human health.  

Prior to cancer research related to tobacco use, cigarette companies recruited the medical community to push their ads in the  ‘30s. One copy line read, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”  By the ‘40s, this apathy turned into unadulterated fear as lung cancer and the death rate from lung cancer hit the roof. Like vaping, there was no research about the dangers of tobacco use. “Just because there’s no research now, doesn’t mean that [vape pens] aren’t unhealthy for you,” Riker said.

One tactic used to educate students is good old fashioned common sense about what it is they are vaping. “We know that amonia is bad for us. We know that inhaling tin is not good. We know that many farmers are battling lung cancer from the pesticides they inhale,” Riker said.

Administrators also strive to get students to understand the possible psychological and developmental toll that vaping might take on young minds and bodies. According to Riker, nicotine, THC, and the chemical and metal substances that make up vape pens affect the brain by inhibiting its maturation and decision-making functions (the brain is not fully developed until age 24). The point of educating students is not to judge or chastise them, but to help them make better and more informed choices regarding their health and future. “We want to give them the keys to make better decisions,” Riker said. “We want them to understand their brains are not cognitively ready to make these decisions.”

Not surprisingly, peer pressure appears to be the reason most kids vape to begin with. Students think that vaping either “looks cool” or they’re encouraged by their friends to try it. But while initial use is due to peer pressure, the bigger issue arises when students try vaping and become addicted - unable to stop even if they want to.

District students who receive in-school suspension (ISS) for vaping are required to complete an online class called VapeEducate. VapeEducate is an immersive curriculum, used as a tool for parents, communities, and educators to learn more about e-cigarettes as a whole. The content is crafted specifically for middle and high schoolers. In addition to VapeEducate, Riker suggests another program called INDEPTH, developed by the American Lung Association, which includes counseling and peer-to-peer discussion.

Other efforts that Lexington educators take on include education initiatives that involve the entire family. Parents need to be aware of what vape pens contain and how it may be affecting their children’s health, even if they’re not smoking cigarettes, drinking, or doing hard drugs. Health teachers throughout Lexington and in other districts are also spending  more time covering vaping within their curriculums, and incorporating D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs. Riker emphasizes that education on vaping be a continuous, fluid part of classroom education.

In addition to pressure among peers, it’s too easy for kids to see no problem with vaping if their parents are doing it too. Educating kids at school is imperative so that they take insightful stances on the issue based off what they’ve learned, no matter who is vaping around them. Furthermore, when students bring home what they’ve learned at school it might educate parents, and build a healthier family overall. It’s important to note that just because e-cigarettes were initially introduced to the consumer market as a smoking cessation tool, it doesn’t mean it is healthy or safe to use - especially by children. Additionally, vaping tends to be a precursor to the exploration of other substances, and is commonly referred to as a gateway drug.

Help is available for students who have a substance abuse problem. Riker suggests visiting a primary care doctor for referrals, and states that there are resources available for those who are uninsured or don’t have a primary care health care provider. Organizations such as Lexington-based Health Care Collaborative of Rural Missouri (HCC) provide programs, services, and referrals for treatment through its Live Well Centers and community partnerships.

Riker also suggests that parents and/or students contact a school counselor or school nurse, as these individuals will have readily available professional contacts and referrals. 

In conclusion, it’s important to note the CDC reports as of December 17, 2019, there were 2,506 cases of hospitalizations due to lung injuries from vaping. Sixteen percent of these cases were individuals under 18 years old, with another 38 percent between the ages of 18 to 24.

Additionally 54 deaths have been confirmed in 27 states (as of the same date), including  Missouri.  The end of December also marked the FDA’s move to raise the federal minimum age to purchase all tobacco products – including e-cigarettes and vaping cartridges – from 18 to 21.

About the Writer

Tempest Wright

Contributing Writer

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