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Daniel Hand High School Principal Anthony Salutari shows The Source the various e-cigarettes, including multiple JUULs that teachers and administrators have confiscated from students. (Photo by Zoe Roos/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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Daniel Hand High School (DHHS) Principal Anthony Salutari has a bag in his office that contains what looks to some like a bunch of USB drives. The little devices, about two inches in length and half an inch in diameter, are in fact JUULs, one of the most popular e-cigarettes on the market. How did Salutari end up with a whole bag of them? They were confiscated from high school students.
E-cigarettes came on to the market years ago and were originally marketed as smoking cessation devices for individuals who smoke traditional cigarettes. The devices, which come in various shapes and sizes, work by heating up and vaporizing a liquid, which a smoker then inhales.
While some e-cigarettes may have originally been marketed to adults, devices like the JUUL come with flavors like bubblegum and mango, making them more attractive to younger people. About a year ago, Salutari said he saw the use of devices like the JUUL among high school and possibly middle school students explode.
“I couldn’t give you exact numbers, but I would say it’s a big problem,” he said. “It’s so popular among teenagers and…whatever strategy was used to make these really attractive to kids was incredibly successful.”
Caught a bit on the back foot by the sudden surge in popularity of e-cigarettes, school administrators and members of Madison Youth & Family Service (MYFS) are working to try to curb the usage through education.
MYFS Director Scott Cochran said there is a massive amount of misinformation floating around. He said some people think there isn’t any nicotine in an e-cigarette when in fact one JUUL pod—the part of the device that contains the vaping liquid—can contain as much nicotine as a whole pack of regular cigarettes.
“Nicotine activates certain receptors that trigger a release of dopamine, so this is the same process that happens with other addictive drugs and why it is so important to get the message out,” he said. “The teenage brain is a developing brain and the addiction can become stronger faster, because their brain is developing.”
The liquid in the e-cigarette is not water but frequently contains propylene glycol, a primary component of antifreeze. Salutari said the way the device works by heating up the liquid to produce an aerosol also has serious health risks.
“The ingredients get heated up to an incredible temperature in a short period of time,” he said. “In a more recent study it says that there are metals now that are getting released into your body because the breakdown the heat causes in that little vial. The whole item is made out of some type of metal and that’s in addition to everything that’s in the pod itself, which I’m sure will come out over time having negative or adverse health effects on people with extended use.”
In addition to the potential health dangers caused by the traditional vaping liquid, an e-cigarette can also be used to vape THC, the active component of marijuana and, just as a nicotine-delivering e-cigarette doesn’t smell like a cigarette, using an e-cigarette to deliver THC won’t smell like marijuana. Salutari said he doesn’t know if students are using the e-cigarettes to vape marijuana because it is hard to tell.
“The challenge is unless someone that gets caught using openly admits that there is THC instead of nicotine, there is no way to tell,” he said.
A Rapidly Evolving Problem
Salutari said new e-cigarettes are constantly on the market and the schools have had to work hard to essentially catch up.
“It’s incredible how many people are using these devices,” he said, noting that the increase “just came by storm” last year. “We said ‘Oh wow, okay, we need to do some awareness and training to help our staff know what it is and help recognize it,’ but more importantly we also needed to let parents and kids know that you don’t have to do this and this is dangerous.”
The other problem is JUUL-type devices are easy for students to hide and some vaping liquids do not produce a smell and the vapor itself disappears fairly quickly, so, unlike cigarettes, if someone goes into the bathroom, vapes, and returns to class, there may be no telltale smell. With a product like a JUUL, you could be in the bathroom next to someone vaping in the next stall and not even know it.
“I would say with confidence that kids are doing it far more often than we are catching them,” he said. “It’s tricky because you walk into a bathroom and there are 10 kids in there and if someone had been using a JUUL in there, everyone can say it wasn’t me and they can slip the thing right in their pocket or in their wallet or somewhere a little more discreet.”
Salutari said when he catches kids with an e-cigarette, it’s treated the same way the school would treat possession of a tobacco product and it carries a fairly low consequence. However, Salutari said administrators and coaches are working together to demonstrate the use of these devices does have consequences.
“We are fighting in the overflow of what these companies are doing to get this product to be interesting to kids so we have to come back at it with all the different reasons as to why you shouldn’t do this,” he said. “Our coaches have taken a pretty firm stance and we have school consequences and some of our coaches said you don’t get suspended from school if you get caught, but if you get caught you’re not playing…I think we are trying to address it every different way we can and just bombard students with a message that first these things are not good for you and secondly you do not have to do this.”
Salutari said the schools have been trying to educate students on the dangers of these devices through health courses, assemblies led by older students and administrators, and education initiatives through MYFS. Cochran said he also wants to see if they can get the message out to students that they are being tricked by Big Tobacco into buying these products, no different than how millions of Americans took up smoking traditional cigarettes under the guise that smoking a cigarette would make you look cool.
“We need to share with kids that generations of kids have been tricked into becoming addicted to nicotine,” he said. “You get to the youth, make it something that is appealing to them, and you make it cool and you reinforce that. These things are advertised on social media, they sponsor concerts, they have ways of getting this to the kids, and it’s all part of what they’ve always done this is just another reimagining of the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel. It’s really right along those same themes.”
Both Cochran and Salutari said a big part of the education push has to be educating the parents. Salutari said when he goes to PTO meetings or does presentations at back to school events he will pull up a photo of a JUUL and watch as a sea of parents stare at it with confused looks on their faces.
“We need to have those ongoing conversations with kids,” he said. “We need to talk to them because I think it’s a really strong message when kids know that their parents don’t approve but a lot of parents might not engage in this conversation because they don’t know what to talk about.”
The schools and MYFS have information available for all members of the community to help educate the community on the dangers of these devices. Cochran said the time to have this conversation with your kids is right now.
“Where we were winning the battle against cigarettes and lowering the tobacco use among teenagers this is opened up nicotine used to a whole new group of kids,” he said. “Kids who would have never smoked are now going to have the same kind of issues where you have exposure to nicotine and exposure to maybe becoming addicted to nicotine and then maybe becoming addicted to other substances at some point.”
For more information, contact MYFS at 203-245-5645 or to speak with an administrator at DHHS, call 203-245-6350.
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