Adam Spiegel

Osceola High School principal Adam Spiegel shows items that have been confiscatred from students at the school.

“I would say in the last two years the marketing has increased for vaping targeting the age groups of our students and it’s caused a drastic increase of vaping in schools,” says Osceola High School Principal Adam Spiegel. “We’ve really had to be proactive in figuring out the ‘why’ behind it and how to help these students.”

Although e-cigarettes have been around for more than a decade, vaping rates have skyrocketed in recent years, especially among teens. It doesn’t seem to matter the size of the city teens reside in, e-cigarettes have become the No. 1 source of nicotine consumption among adolescents. More than 3.6 million middle and high school students currently use e-cigarettes, according to the latest National Youth Tobacco Study. Another national study last year found that 11% of high school seniors, 8% of 10th-graders, and 3.5% of eighth-graders vaped with nicotine during a previous one month period, far surpassing traditional combustible cigarettes. 

The worrying part is many young people think vaping is mostly harmless. Although the number and levels of toxicants are lower in aerosol from electronic cigarettes than from tobacco smoke, long term exposure to e-cigarette vapor could still cause nicotine dependence and increase the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular health effects.

Because vaping is a relatively new habit, many do not understand what the act of vaping actually means. Vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling the vapor produced by the heated nicotine liquid, often called juice, of an electronic cigarette, also called an e-cigarette or e-cig, vape pen or personal vaporizer. It’s also commonly called JUULing (pronounced jewel-ing).

According to research done by Yale Medicine, the popularity of Juul is worrying to addiction researchers. Juuls arrived late to the e-cigarette market in 2015, about eight years after vaping devices first began appearing in the United States. But the company, called Juul Labs, has surged ahead of competitors. Juul accounted for 72% of the e-cigarette market in August 2018. Juul products appear sleek and slim, with an appearance that mirrors a flash drive.

What originated as a smoking cessation aid has quickly became a popular and addictive product in its own right. Some attribute the recent rise in popularity to packaging and advertising. They feel teens are after innovation and they’re attracted by sleek design and ease of use.

Although vaping companies emphatically deny that they are marketing to young people, critics note such features in their advertising as youthful images and colors, animation, actors who appear to be under 21, and suggestions that vaping makes you happier and improves your social status.

During a recent media briefing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised people to avoid e-cigarettes while federal and state officials investigate a nationwide outbreak of severe respiratory illnesses associated with the use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products. 

Federal and state officials have reported hundreds of total possible cases of pulmonary disease and several deaths that may be related to vaping. Patient symptoms ranged from cough, chest pain and shortness of breath to fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea and fever, according to the CDC.

As part of their investigations, state health officials have sent samples of products to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for analysis. The FDA is evaluating these samples for THC, which is the high-inducing compound in marijuana, nicotine, vitamin E acetate, and a range of other chemicals. 

The Polk County Health Department sent out a Public Health release in mid-September citing as of Sept. 6, 2019 there have been over 450 possible cases of lung illness associated with e-cigarette products. There have been five confirmed deaths, with the closest being reported in Minnesota. 

As of Sept. 5, 2019, Wisconsin Department of Health Services was aware of 34 cases, with 12 patients whose cases need further investigation. These cases have been reported in multiple counties throughout Wisconsin. Most of the affected individuals have been adolescents and young adults, but older adults have been affected too. “It is important that not using e-cigarettes is discussed with youth and anyone that is currently using or considering use,” said Brian Kaczmarski, Polk County Health Officer. 

Vaping is not allowed on the grounds of the School District of Osceola and is a violation of the school’s Athletic/Activity Code. Some schools across the nation are taking extreme measures to combat the vaping crisis. A Nebraska school district is planning to introduce random nicotine testing among students aged 12 to 18 if they wish to take part in extracurricular activities. Students and their parents are required to sign a consent form agreeing to the urinalysis tests, which are randomly assigned to 10% of the students in extracurricular activities each month.

Schools in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Arizona and Illinois have installed WiFi-enabled vape detectors, a new technology where sensors that resemble smoke detectors, are installed in areas of schools where students typically vape, such as restrooms. They are designed to detect vapor from e-cigarettes by measuring changes in humidity and air content.

“We work very closely with our police department,” says Spiegel. “We’re working with them on a vaping ordinance where, regardless of whether or not there is nicotine, they would still be eligible for a ticket. Also, if they are 18 it’s an “enhancer,” meaning if they are in possession of it on school property it becomes more than what it would have been if you were under 18.”

As Spiegel calls this the “old-school” approach, Osceola High School is also working on proactive approaches to the issue to address the concerns of the students directly. A recent grant application has been requested to work with “INDEPTH,” an alternative to citation or suspension of students by the American Lung Association that addresses the teen vaping issue in a more supportive manner.

“We’re looking at how we can help students aside from just the discipline factor, by looking at the long-term effects of how to give them the resources to stop, or not start to begin with,” says school counselor Nathan Gehring. “We have a three pronged approach: build awareness, provide an interventional, or educational opportunity, and get to that final point of cessation. How do you quit and how do we help in that process?”

“Parents need to know, as much as everyone else, that it’s not just a school issue,” Spiegel stated. “It doesn’t discriminate; it’s not just ‘those kids’ that are vaping. We’ve seen our athletes, we’ve seen our good kids – it’s just making poor choices.”

“It’s not unique to Osceola, it’s not unique to Polk County, it’s not unique to Wisconsin,” Gehring concluded. “This is a nation-wide epidemic right now.”

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