Vaping continues to infiltrate schools, despite unknown health effects

December 27, 2018 GMT

This is the first in a two-part series on vaping among students.

SCOTTSBLUFF — A young high school student raises a hand to his mouth during class. The action appears innocent, but hidden in the student’s sleeve is an e-cigarette and the student is vaping during the school day.

Vaping has become a popular pastime among youth, which can be detrimental to their still developing bodies. Though vaping is legal only for adults, teens have increasingly obtained devices and liquid pods, which are largely advertised as an alternative to smoking tobacco. One of the most popular brands, JUUL, is attractive to youth because the devices are discrete, making them difficult to detect at school.

Eddy Gonzales, campus security for Scottsbluff Public Schools, said the JUUL device looks like a USB drive and can even be plugged into a computer to be recharged. The vaporizers and e-cigarettes also resemble a thick pen, a stylus for an iPad, or a small flask with a chimney stack coming out of the top.

“What we’re trying to do is alert parents and teachers about these devices and from that hopefully, students will become in the know,” said Mike Halley, Scottsbluff High School principal. “The next step is to address the harmful effects of it.”

Recently, Suzanne Forkner, community health educator, senior division of public health, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services provided an update and further education to the Panhandle Prevention Coalition, which works to better public health in a variety of areas in the Panhandle.

Forkner spoke about the concern of e-cigarettes, but focused on JUUL. In Nebraska, JUUL has become more popular in the last three years than any other brand. Currently, there are more than 450 brands of e-cigarettes and more than 7,500 different flavors. E-cigarettes come in many different shapes and sizes. JUUL’s design looks like a USB drive.

“The challenge, especially for educators, is to know what’s out there,” Forkner said.

Gering Junior High School Resource Officer Robert Gleim said at the beginning of the school year, there was an increase in students vaping. When a student is found possessing a vapor product, they are issued a citation for being a minor in possession of tobacco. From a school perspective, students can receive in school suspension, out of school suspension and detention.

“We’re not going to be giving warnings because we want to make it known that, one, it’s not OK to being doing it at their age and, two, especially on school grounds,” said Gleim.

The 2016 Surgeon General reported that these e-cigarettes allow users to inhale an aerosol, which typically contains nicotine, diacetyl, flavorings, and additives. Based on the Surgeon General’s report “E-Cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults,” the devices are also called e-cigs, cigalikes, e-hookahs, mods, vape pens, vapes, and tank systems. Research found that e-cigarette use among youth and young adults (11-24 years of age) is a public concern.

“In 2014, current use of e-cigarettes by young adults 18-24 years of age surpassed that of adults 25 years of age and older.”


Some of the features of e-cigarettes are the same. They are all battery-powered, some have a light on its end. A chamber in the e-cigarette heats up the liquid. Contrary to what most people believe, the liquid is not water vapor.

“Tobacco companies have done so good at selling that it’s safe, kids believe it,” Forkner said. “And JUUL is high tech and friendly.”

All e-cigarettes have a cartridge with the liquid, but the Food and Drug Administration does not have set regulations so all the recipes are different, Forkner said. There is a requirement that e-cigarette companies submit their products, including all ingredients, to FDA for review, which will take place in 2022.

“It’s hard to nail down what’s in it,” Forkner said.

Forkner is concerned about what is in an e-cigarette and the damage that can be done to your lungs.

“A lot of chemicals in these might be FDA-approved for ingestion but not for inhalation,” Forkner said. “When they are heated, they chemically change.”

Studies have shown instead of a healthy, pink lung, it is red, inflamed and irritated. According to the American Lung Association evidence of bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung, and cancers, caused by breathing in diacetyl, a chemical once used to flavor microwave popcorn, have been associated with e-cigarettes. A 2015 Harvard study found diacetyl in more than 75 percent of flavored electronic cigarettes and refill liquids.

Forkner said when the liquids have been studied by scientists, nicotine has been found even at trace amounts. A 2015 survey in Lincoln found 80-90 percent of the liquid is propalene-glycol, approved for ingestion not inhalation. The study also found 46 percent of e-cigarette sales at convenience stores were JUUL. The National Institutes of Health has said JUUL has four times the nicotine than a pack of cigarettes.

“Five percent of the juice pod has the same nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes,” Forkner said. “You are becoming multiple pack-a-day smokers and don’t realize it.”

The study also found youth who use e-cigarettes are seven times more likely to use cigarettes within a year.

In addition to nicotine, diacetyl and propalene-glycol, there are other potentially harmful substances in the liquid. Heavy metals such as nickel, tin, and lead have also been found, Forkner said.

“These ultra-fine particles go deeper into your lungs,” Forkner said. “We don’t have long-term exposure studies because it hasn’t been on the market for 50 years like cigarettes.”

While some e-cigarettes have a huge plume of smoke, JUUL is specifically designed to not have a plume and to dissipate quickly. This makes it attractive to teenagers for use in school. She said students have come up with a variety of ways to hide their e-cigarettes, for example, in socks and hollowed out highlighters. Forkner said schools are facing a challenge when trying to keep up with e-cigarettes, particularly with JUUL because of its frequent misidentification as a USB device and the only slightly visible plume.

“Some schools are installing aerosol detectors,” Forkner said. “There’s also a whole other language around ‘juuling.’”

Students have been caught using JUUL in class, locker rooms and bathrooms. Teachers have noticed that when some students go to the bathroom, they return to the classroom with a strong smell of vapor pods.

“I hate it when I walk into the restroom and it smells like vapor,” said Jacob Krul, Scottsbluff High School junior. He holds his breath to avoid inhaling as much vapor as possible.

In part two, to run in Friday’s Star-Herald, the Star-Herald will look at the marketing and education about the impact of vaping on students.