Vaping Replacing Smoking as Campus Epidemic

Alexandra Reinecke, Beck Chambers, and Layla Wright

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Enduring the smell of flushed urine and cheap hand-soap is a high school rite of passage. But daily Cinnablaze and Bubblegum clouds are robbing us of that right. And when Wilfred Owen wrote that he saw a soldier “drowning . . . as under a green sea [of mustard gas],” he could as easily have been describing a flanneled student in the E-hall bathroom stumbling in an ocean of Green Apple vape.

In other words, vaping, or JUULing (after a popular pen used for the activity), is now rampant on campus. “We’re seeing it on this campus as well as on the other campuses in the district, that vaping substantially increased this year even compared to last year, 2 years ago or 3 years ago. There have been incidents this year where people got caught,” said Vice Principal Jon Drury.

“It’s super common in freshmen all the way up to seniors,” said one student who asked to remain anonymous. “If you’re in the bathroom, the smell of vape is super strong. In the guys’ bathroom they . . . just stand around doing it together.”

“People leave class to do it [vape],” said the source, explaining that people also vape during brunch and lunch and that students routinely “go back [to vape in the bathroom]” because “it’s a very short high.”

Whether students themselves vape or know a friend who does, the influence of the drug is overwhelmingly apparent on the student body.

“The fire alarm goes off at least twice a year probably because of vaping,” said one senior, adding that when teachers do not explicitly explain that an alarm is the result of a drill, many students assume that the noise was triggered by their classmates either “vaping or getting stoned in the bathrooms.”

It’s just the boys being dumb, blowing the [vape] smoke everywhere,” said another senior who also asked to remain anonymous.

While vaping continues to be a problem, the administration has taken measures to limit it.

According to Drury, administration response to the upsurge in recorded vaping incidents, all of which have occurred on campus and many of which have occurred in campus restrooms, now includes “restorative community service.”

“We’re looking at trying to do more restorative disciplinary action than just your suspension, get your suspension and send you on your way,” explained Drury, adding that discipline for being caught vaping in a campus restroom might be community service that includes “a couple hours [spent cleaning] in the restroom.”

Along with the new discipline policy, Drury explained that consequences for vaping can also include detention and in-house suspension. He also noted that the nature of a student’s discipline correlates to the nature of that student’s infraction. “Your first offense, it depends. There are a lot of different situations. Whether it’s on you or whether you’re smoking it,” said Drury of the “variables” that inform administration drug response.

While one source said JUULing on campus “used to be really easy,” administration’s new habit of frequently “checking on the bathrooms” and doling out “trouble” to offenders has dissuaded some from “lighting up” during school hours.

Smoking at school is not a new phenomenon, as made apparent in classic smoke-filled flicks like Grease and Footloose and by the stories provided by parents of “burn-outs” in leather jackets hanging around school-designated “smoking patios.” However, the invention of e-cigarettes, a battery-operated, tobacco cigarette substitute used to inhale a vapor that contains nicotine, has renewed its popularity.

According to The Huffington Post, while cigarette smoking among high schoolers has decreased by nearly 8% since 2011, vaping has increased by 12% in the same 6-year period, making e-cigarettes a new epidemic.

There are many reasons for the growth of this market. Many teens are unaware of the threat vaping poses to their health, which is equal to, possibly greater than, that posed by traditional cigarettes.

Unlike traditional cigarettes, which operate by combusting tobacco, vape devices, free of tobacco, do not produce tar. Yet, while cigarettes were years ago proven to cause lung and other fatal cancers, the effects of e-cigarettes are relatively unknown.

Some vapers take that clinical question mark as a green light.

“I vape every day,” claimed one student who asked to remain anonymous, adding that they have never personally experienced any adverse health effects.

Though the consequences of vaping haven’t been comprehensively researched or proven, “Vaping is better than cigarettes [are for your health]” is a shot-in-the-dark guess another regular vaper offered.

Another draw to e-cigarettes is their price. According to NerdWallet, while pack-a-day smokers spend an average of $2,600 annually, e-cigarette owners who use at a similar rate spend a considerably smaller $1,400.

At only $34.99 for a Basic Kit, and offering enticing “pod” flavors like Creme Brulee, Cool Mint, and Virginia Tobacco, the JUUL is enticing for financially dependent minors.

Priced similarly to a Starbucks drink, cheaper alternatives like the EGO CE4 Pen ($5.99), Viking E-Hookah ($4.50), and the Shisha Time Disposable Hookah ($3.99) are even more seductive.

Relatively easy accessibility to the JUUL and other vape pens is another lure for young people. While the purchase of traditional cigarettes in California is illegal under the age of 21 and requires strict I.D. checking, the digital vape market is a dark world free of regulation where underage access to vape products is comically easy. According to Bergen Mama, there is no regulation of online U.S. vape sales.

Gaining access to the digital wonderland of vape pens and juices is as simple as confirming one’s legal ability to purchase on a web pop-up window –a confirmation that is seldom verified by manufacturer’s who are incentivized to sell, not prevent the sale of their products.

“Without strictly enforced federal regulations, online e-cigarette vendors have little motivation to decrease profits by spending the time and money it takes to properly verify customers’ age and reject underage buyers,” said University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher Rebecca S. Williams. In a study she recently conducted with colleagues, minors successfully received deliveries of e-cigarettes from 76.5% of purchase attempts, with no attempts by delivery companies to verify their ages at delivery.

According to one student source, smoke shops in nearby Berkeley, California also routinely sell to minors –some of whom are Campolindo students. “You just go to Berkeley,” said the source, explaining that buying vape pens and juice is “so easy” because “they sell to anyone.”

“You walk in, choose what you want, and pay in cash,” said the source, of 2 smoke-shops on Telegraph Avenue, explaining that while the employees sometimes “ask if you’re 21” they as often “don’t” and that to answer an age verification, one is not asked to present an I.D. The word “yes,” said the source, is the only confirmation the shops require.

“People buy [vape supplies] in Berkeley almost 100%,” said the source, expressing a belief that “like 90% of people [who vape at Campolindo] get their stuff there.”

Drury confirmed that while students buy “both” online and in-person, the aforementioned “Berkeley location” has “come up” in 1 or more of this year’s on-campus vaping offenses.

In tandem with the ease of access is the discreetness offered by the device, thus making it easier for students to use it without being caught. According to NPR, the JUUL and other vape pens are so discreet that they resemble flash drives or pens; Twitter user @tiiiredpurpl described an experience in which a male teacher confused a JUUL with a tampon. The devices also don’t leave a telling after-smell like the aroma that might dissuade teens from smoking classic cigarettes on campus.

Another factor in the popularity of teenage vaping is the lack of social stigma around the trend that surrounds traditional cigarettes and other drugs like heroin or cocaine; while frightening videos of maimed former smokers and ad campaigns anthropomorphizing black, tar-covered lungs as sprinting monsters, media from celebrities to news sources have yet to do anything other than encourage and advertise vaping.

According to CNBC, 27% of the e-cig industry is owned by the aforementioned JUUL Labs, a company that specializes in vaping products and which, by selling its popular vape pen, purports to produce “a viable alternative to cigarettes” aimed at “improving the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers.”

“I’m Dores Andre, a principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet,” said a raven-haired young woman with a strong Spanish accent in one of the 4 testimonials on the company’s website. “I started smoking because it was cool to do. Everybody used to smoke. Especially in Europe. All the dancers. And when I came to the States everybody just quit. . . . My boyfriend gave me a JUUL, and that was it.”

Another reviewer claimed to have adopted the JUUL “immediately” as an “effortless” replacement for cigarettes.

But while JUUL Labs claims the last thing they want to see is “a new generation of smokers,” the unfettered popularity of their cigarette substitute among teens like those on our campus–and their financial benefit by that popularity–speaks otherwise.

Results for the word “vape” on colloquial slang site Urban Dictionary include explicit references to the kind of teenage use now a reality at Campolindo:

a) Something that “fifteen-year-olds buy from their friends in college because they think it’s cool.”

b) “Guy 1: Bro I just bought this new juice called strawberry cheesecake. Do you wanna go behind the school?”

c) A drug someone in the high school bathroom is “always asking if you got.”

The popularity of JUUL nationwide is great enough to have made the word itself a metonymous verb for the activity of vaping; according to Social Judo, about 20% of high schoolers report having used a JUUL at least once. “It’s usually a JUUL or a Phix [another kind of pen],” said one source, corroborating that student JUULing in campus restrooms “happens all the time.”

While JUULs and other vape pens have not been around long enough for conclusive, long-term studies to have been completed on their health effects, some vaping consequences are known. According to Live Science, the activity can lead to nicotine addiction, eye and airway irritation, and undue consumption of carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).

Outside of such effects, one might consider the simple, common sense question healthcare professionals and activists alike have recently been raising: Does smoking cheap, unregulated chemicals sound advisable?

While the medical effects of vaping are unclear, its moral realities are crystal. Vaping is a way for Big Tobacco, financially strapped by scientific evidence highlighting the poor health effects of traditional cigarettes, to profit by exploiting teenage naivete.

And while it may take years for studies to prove vaping’s health hazards, we need not wait that long ourselves to seriously consider how we both nationally regulate, locally recognize, and personally consider what chemicals –fruity-smelling or otherwise– we are choosing to inhale.

“I am totally aware of it [the bad health effects of smoking],” said one student source, while disclosing concern that their classmates aren’t so knowledgeable. “Nicotine is extremely addictive . . . [But] I think underclassmen don’t really understand that they are addicted,” the source said, adding that it is “ridiculous” that students as young as 14 have “such easy access to drugs.”

Drury agreed that the ease of student access to vape pens and liquids is “absolutely” a campus issue.

“The corporations say that vaping is safe, but guess what? Corporations in the 1950s said that smoking cigarettes was safe,” warned another student.

Reporting also contributed by Layla Wright and Beck Chambers. 

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Vaping Replacing Smoking as Campus Epidemic