E-cigarettes and electronic vapor products are a growing problem in the Tomah Area School District. Tomah High School principal Robert Joyce said there has been a substantial increase in suspensions from e-cigarette and vape usage in the past three years.
“This year we’re up to 23 tobacco-related suspensions from three years ago when we had only seven,” he said. “The school year hasn’t even finished yet, and we’re already over three-fold on this happening since then.”
It’s a challenge to catch students using e-cigarettes and vapes because there’s no scent like with traditional cigarettes, Joyce said. He knows some students haven’t been caught yet.
Tomah Police Department school resource officer Melanie Marshall said the problem detecting e-cigarettes and vapes is there are many sizes and types. She said some, like the Juul brand, look just like USB drives.
“They’re pretty small and pretty easy to hide in shirt sleeves, so some of it is just a matter of a staff member walking to the bathroom and (catching) them standing and vaping,” she said. “Also there have been a couple in the classroom that have fallen out of pockets of students who try to quick pick them up and teachers recognize it for what it is and take it away from students.”
Kayleigh Day, community health educator with the Monroe County Health Department, said e-cigarette use is a statewide problem. While traditional cigarette usage has decreased, e-cigarette and vape usage has increased.
E-cigarette and vape usage has become popular only within the past three or four years, Day said.
According to the biannual Monroe County Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2017, 15 percent of the 1,443 Monroe County high school students surveyed used an electronic vapor product within 30 days of taking the survey. In 2011, 2013 and 2015 there were none.
“In our last ... survey, we see use of e-cigarettes go down, but then we ask about electronic vapor products, and that was higher,” Day said. “So they don’t use cigarettes, but then they use the other devices.”
In 2017 the teen cigarette smoking rate was 12 percent, a decrease from 13 percent in 2015, 17 percent in 2013 and 19 percent in 2011.
E-cigarette usage was non-existent in 2011 and 2013 but was at 12 percent in 2015 and eight percent in 2017.
The problem with e-cigarettes and vapor products is that the long-term health impacts are unknown because the devices have only been around for a few years, Day said.
“Some of the problems ... we’re finding right now is that exposure to nicotine in teen years primes your brain for addiction,” she said. “Teens who are exposed to nicotine, their brain is crying for addiction to other substances. There’s definitely a brain development piece there.”
Also, while called vaping, the substance is not actually vapor; it’s an aerosol, which can potentially contain harmful chemicals.
“There’s a chemical linked to a serious lung disease, benzene, which is found in car exhaust, and there are heavy metals,” she said. “Part of the problem, too, is they’re not regulated by the FDA. Some market as nicotine-free but have been tested and have nicotine in them. The problem is you don’t know what you’re getting in them; they’re not regulated things.”
Another concerning factor is that in some brands, one vape pod is equivalent to one pack of cigarettes, Day said. There have been instances in which teens have consumed three in three days and suffered health problems.
Also, many e-cigarettes are flavored, which makes them attractive to teens. Day said it’s a major issue. She said a recent state survey of teens showed that 95 percent indicated they wouldn’t try an e-cigarette if it wasn’t flavored.
In Tomah, the majority of e-cigarette and vape users are high school students or eighth graders, Marshall said. But she’s also heard fifth-grade students talking about them, saying they’re being told by older students that they’re a safer alternative. That is not the case, she said.
While there are laws and regulations that cover the sale e-cigarettes and vapes, that doesn’t stop underage students from finding a student who’s over 18 to make the purchased for them, Marshall said.
If a Tomah student is caught using an e-cigarette or vape, it’s usually a three-day suspension, Marshall said. If the student is under 18, there is also a municipal court fine of $92.50 for the first offense. Every subsequent violation for anyone between the ages of 12 and 18 goes up another $92.50.
If the student is over 18, it’s just the suspension and any other school-related consequences, Marshall said.
“Law enforcement doesn’t get involved unless they’re caught providing it to a younger person,” she said. “That would be a municipal court fine.”
To combat usage inside the high school building, Joyce said restroom breaks during class have been eliminated unless it’s an emergency. Most of the instances in which students have been caught using an e-cigarette or vape have been in the restroom.
“We take it on a case-by-case basis, but we try to keep them in class as long as we can,” he said. “Classes are only 43 minutes long … then on block days teachers take a break halfway through and take the class to the bathroom. We try to be reasonable ... but we’re trying to make sure the restrooms are used for what they’re intended for.”
Joyce said e-cigarette and vape usage scares him.
“I don’t think students fully understand what they’re putting into their body; it’s not a natural thing … and there will be long-term effects,” he said. “My fear is what else students can and will put into vape pods.”
Day shares that concern.
“They can be used to smoke other substances,” she said. “Some teens are instead of using the vape heads/pods are using THC oil. Some have even been used to smoke meth and that type of stuff, and people don’t notice it because it doesn’t smell like anything.”
Joyce said the key to stopping teen use is education. He said teachers and parents need to be informed of what the products look like − there’s a variety available − and students need to be informed about the health impact of the products.
“Tobacco use was as low as it was because student and parents understood the long-term negative impact of tobacco, and it has been widely accepted for a long time now,” he said. “Vaping is still fairly new and is spurring the interest that tobacco had in the past. We need to make them aware of the negative impact of them on the body and the long-term effects.”