What Should Teachers Do About E-Cigarettes at School?

By Frankie Wallace

E-cigarette prospects have been around for a while, usually as a means for people to quit smoking. But over the past few years, they’ve become somewhat of a trend within youth culture. Teenagers and those who are barely legal have begun vaping tobacco ad nauseum. Some argue this is a good alternative to smoking, but many of these kids never smoked cigarettes in the first place. This, combined with the fact that there isn’t really much known about the long-term effects of vaping, makes it a cause for concern. 

Of course, kids engaging with tobacco is still illegal, and schools have had to stand up to the rise of e-cigarettes and vaping within their student bodies. The disciplinary actions differ; for instance, punishment for a student vaping tobacco may differ from a punishment for vaping THC. However, the majority of educators agree that there should be a way to curb e-cigarette use within their educational environments.

For legitimate action to be taken, educators need to understand where this vaping culture has come from. Doing so will help them discern ways to engage with it. Additionally, is there any research or science behind the effects vaping may have on someone’s brain or body? For  parents and educators, these are the necessary steps to take and questions to ask.

Vaping’s Rising Popularity Among Teens

Though vape culture has received a lot of public backlash in the media, it would seem that it’s more popular among teens now than ever. According to studies by the University of Michigan, 2018 saw a whopping 1.3 million additional student vapers from the previous year. Why now, and why amongst teenagers?

The appeal of vaping to youth comes — at least in part — in how it’s marketed. Since vaping’s rise to popularity, flavors like pop rocks and gummy bears were influencing kids to get involved with it. For some, this may beg the question of who these products are actually designed for. If that sounds like a stretch, then consider the fact that studies are still coming out today confirming that flavors play a major factor in why young people start vaping.

Packaging also has a lot to do with this. Take Juul, for instance. As Vox summarized, “[Juul] designed an e-cigarette that could easily be mistaken for a USB flash drive and can fit in the palm of the hand.” Experts believe that this — along with the double dosage of nicotine within the product — contributes greatly to its rise in popularity among youth.

The Negative Health Effects of Vaping

Most people know that smoking is dangerous. Things like the DARE campaign and the Truth Initiative have been letting people know for years. At large, these movements seem to be working, and smoking rates have gone down for adolescents. That may be because smoking, by and large, has been rebranded to children as bad for them. They know that the practice is correlated with lung cancer and that it affects their respiratory system. Therefore, they’re even less surprised to learn about its tendency to disrupt sleep schedules and cause fertility problems, on top of many other negative health consequences. In general, kids know that smoking is just unequivocally bad for them.

Vaping doesn’t have as thorough of a documented history, and since it was long presented as a means to stop smoking, its image has been somewhat protected. The more it has been studied, the more negative health suspicions have been confirmed. The research shows that vaping poses the same health risks that smoking does, and that e-cigarette substances sometimes include carcinogenic and harmful organic compounds.

According to the Surgeon General, who proclaimed the practice to be unhealthy at the end of 2018, vapers also risk pieces of metal, diacetyl, and chemical compounds ending up in their lungs and body. Vaping seems to be neutral at its best, and incredibly toxic at its worse. To top it all off, most teens who vape end up smoking anyway.

What Should Teachers and Educators Do?

Some schools have made the choice to crack down on vaping by serious means. In Caldwell County, North Carolina, high schoolers caught vaping on campus and at school events are immediately given out-of-school suspensions. Middle schoolers are given a similar punishment, but their first offense results in an in-school suspension rather than out-of-school.

El Dorado police officer Kurt Spivey, however, has a different way to handle this. Spivey teaches a class every Saturday for students caught with nicotine or tobacco. He reported that the number of attendees in his class has grown by 30 kids due to the prevalence of vaping. What’s notable about Spivey is his point to educate students about the dangers of nicotine and tobacco, even in e-cigarettes.

This approach is a reminder that the differing perceptions between e-cigarettes and other types of tobacco are at the heart of why students may see a disconnect between vaping and smoking. E-cigarettes are essentially new products that need to be studied more. What we do know about their health effects is generally negative, and therefore that information should be circulated. Rather than keeping kids naive, they should be introduced with the facts about e-cigarette use.

Each teenager, school, and family is different, though. The questions being asked by authorities need to be tackled on a case-by-case basis, including:

  • What should the punishment be for students caught vaping?
  • Should schools treat vaping the same as other types of tobacco?
  • Should parents or guardians take legal action against those who introduced vaping to their teens?

While it grows in popularity, vaping will continue to be researched. However, we already know that the practice is not harmless, and it’s worth keeping teens away from. As we learn more, education and preventative measures will improve. Until then though, each case will have to be handled with more caution and empathy.