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Kavitha Cardoza, Education Week
Kavitha Cardoza, Education Week
It looks like a flash drive, can be hidden anywhere and doesn't create tell-tale smoke. Across the country, the use of these e-cigarettes are spiking among youth, but parents often aren't even sure what they are and many teens mistakenly believe there are no serious health risks. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week reports.
Cigarette smoking among youth is at historic lows, but the number of kids using electronic cigarettes has increased.
The government estimates the number is two million. Although e-cigarettes deliver nicotine, many teens mistakenly believe there are no serious health risks.
And since newer devices look like computer thumb drives, it's harder for educators to detect them.
That's led to worries about e-cigarettes in schools, including the most popular one, Juul.
Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza, with our partner Education Week, visited a school in Milford, Connecticut, where the principal is trying to change the behavior.
It's part of our weekly series Making the Grade.
Fran Thompson, the principal of Jonathan Law High School, opens what he calls his vaping drawer.
These are some of the items that we have confiscated this week.
The items are all e-cigarettes. The most popular brand by far is called Juul.
This is a Juul. I know it looks like a flash drive, right? So, the liquid goes in here.
Basically, they're devices that heat up a liquid, often nicotine, and you inhale the vapor.
And then they smoke it, they vape it.
Kids can hide them anywhere.
Their socks, their backpacks, their pockets, their wallets, their bras, back pockets, everywhere.
Anywhere, yes, because they're so small.
Students Zane Berks and Emma Hudd say that's part of a Juul's popularity.
It's a lot easier than smoking a cigarette or drinking. People do it in class all the time. And kids like that it's sneaky and that they're getting away with it, because it gives you that, like, rebellion.
Are you really writing about Christopher Columbus?
I have athletes doing it. I have honors kids doing it. There's absolutely no stereotype in terms of the spectrum of who would be doing this.
That makes this school in Milford, Connecticut, typical.
Juuling, as it's called, has spiked all over the country among youth. But, unlike alcohol or cigarettes, often, parents aren't even sure what it is. Parent Liz Goodwin has two teenagers in this school. She found nicotine liquid pods in their pockets while she was doing laundry.
When I found the pods, I Googled it and looked for it, and I couldn't find anything. I just had a photo of it and tried to describe it, and what is this? And then I saw the amount of nicotine. It's the equivalent of one pack of cigarettes.
I also understood some of my adult friends used e-cigarettes as a way to get off of smoking, so I didn't know how dangerous it was.
I will show you what was going on.
Principal Thompson says his aha moment was in the bathroom.
So, your typical high school bathroom, right?
Brings back memories.
Just like watching "Grease," right?"
But what was happening was you might have five or six kids hanging out in here with the door closed and vaping.
Teachers said groups of students were gone for more than 20, 25 minutes at a time.
I had boys wrestling in the bathrooms. I had girls setting up little tent cities in the bathrooms, so they could hang out and then come back totally lost because they missed that instructional time, and really unfocused because they were buzzed from the vaping.
It was hard to know for certain, though, because there are no obvious signs. There's very little smoke and no characteristic cigarette smell.
You really can't tell. Like, how do I know it's not a Bath and Body Works perfume that they pray that smells like mango?
Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin Runs the Yale Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science at Yale University. She says the flavors are a big part of e-cigarettes' popularity. They sound playful and harmless, mango, mint, cotton candy, blueberry pie.
These products come in over 7,000 different flavors. And they can also mix and match to create their own, which, again, introduces a sense of novelty.
But the vapors inhaled has been found to contain lead, zinc, chromium and nickel.
And Krishnan-Sarin says nicotine, the main liquid in these devices, is extremely addictive and can cause memory and attention loss, especially in the developing teenage brain.
There's something about nicotine that the teen brain is not only sensitive, more sensitive to it, but it also leads to greater use of other substances, like cocaine, marijuana.
Juuls were created as a way to help adult smokers stop smoking. Krishnan-Sarin says there is not a lot of research available, but e-cigarettes do contain fewer toxic chemicals than a regular cigarette.
But she says that doesn't mean they are safe for kids. In fact, a big misconception is most kids think they're inhaling water vapor.
No, no, definitely not. It is not water vapor. And I think that is a message that needs to be delivered very clearly to youth. There are chemicals in these e-liquids. You are vaporizing the chemicals and you are inhaling them.
Principal Thompson felt he couldn't punish students for vaping because they didn't understand why it was wrong. So he started educating them.
These are all the chemicals that can be found in one single cigarette.
Janelle Jessee with St. Vincent's Medical Center has spoken to more than 16,000 students from all over Connecticut this year.
I ask the question, raise your hand if you know someone your own age that smokes cigarettes. Very rare do I get more than five. And then I ask the same question, do you know someone your own age that uses a Juul or a vape? Almost every single hand goes up from a fifth-grade classroom all the way up to a 12th grade classroom.
Students Morgan Macey and Anthony Mendez say images on social media spread quickly.
You see the younger celebrities are holding a Juul in their hand, and everyone's Snapchat will post videos of them Juuling. They just find it a way to be cool.
There's a lot of tricks. There's like smoke bubbles, kind of like a ring around, and then a bigger ring. There's different tricks that they do online.
So, Jessee gives them information and answers questions. She even has a session for their teachers.
So, where do you put the fluid? Why do you need power? I know nothing about this.
I think not having these Juuls and this industry regulated by federal and also state officials is outrageous.
Yes, I will tell you, straight up, this is one of our top concerns right now.
Scott Gottlieb is the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He says while e-cigarettes can be used by adults to stop smoking, it can't be done at the expense of children.
If all we do is end up hooking a whole generation of young people on nicotine by making these products available, we won't have done a service from a public health standpoint.
And so we need to be very aggressive in trying to take steps to crack down, prevent the youth use of these products.
The FDA is being sued by several organizations that are challenging Gottlieb's decision to allow e-cigarettes to remain on the market until 2022 without regulatory review. Gottlieb says they needed time to set comprehensive standards for all these products, not just Juul.
We also can't be in a position where we're playing Whac-A-Mole, where we're just going after one particular product and don't have in place rules that address the overall category.
The FDA has requested internal research from e-cigarette companies, including why these products are so popular with kids. They are conducting a national undercover blitz to stop stores from selling to youth.
And, this fall, the FDA will roll out their first ever comprehensive public health campaign about e-cigarettes.
Vaping can deliver nicotine to your brain, reprogramming you to crave more and more.
In a statement, Juul says they cannot be more emphatic, no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try Juul.
The company has pledged $30 million for their own education and prevention efforts.
Despite how proactive this school is about educating students against e-cigarette use, students say Juuls are still extremely common. None of these four students say they have vaped, but they don't hesitate.
If I asked you to get me a Juul right now, how long do you think it would it take you?
Five minutes or less.
Five minutes or less, yes.
Don't even know how to get one.
Principal Thompson knows this.
It's always going to be catch-up. It's always going to be reactionary. So, you do the best you can, I think.
But he says it's critical to keep educating kids about the risks.
I consider vaping to be the next health epidemic for teenagers. And I believe, in my heart, that this is going to have long-term effects, not dissimilar to smoking and cancer.
For the "PBS NewsHour" and Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Milford, Connecticut.
And one additional note. In June, voters in San Francisco overwhelmingly backed a measure to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, including vaping liquids. It's considered the strictest in the nation.
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