Growing up in the 2000s, there was one thing hammered into the mind of every first through ninth grader: smoking is evil, and only losers and burnouts smoke. There were pledges to abstain, stickers and hours of education and presentations. However, these lessons may have been wasted.
Recently, across the state, there has been a worrying increase in nicotine use and abuse by teenagers. The primary culprit: Juul.
According to the North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey’s most recent report, e-cigarette use by high schoolers is up 894 percent since 2011.
That same survey found three out of every ten students have used e-cigarettes. East, in particular, having wealthy students with disposable income, is struggling with the epidemic.
Addiction isn’t something that can be pinpointed easily. It is a gradual process for most users.
“No, I’m probably not addicted. Well, it’s hard to tell,” one anonymous student admitted. “When I first started juuling I thought that I would know when I would be addicted, but I honestly don’t know. I think I could just stop if I needed to,” said one East student.
The extent of harm is still unknown. While there is plenty of research on the dangers of nicotine use, vaping is a new trend. The research about the long-term health effects of vaping is fairly minimal. This level of uncertainty makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the health impacts on users, making it easier for teenagers to justify juuling.
“I definitely think we don’t know that it’s bad for you: I mean it’s certainly not good for you, but I don’t plan on not using nicotine,” said a student at East.
The main question still stands, and is on the mind of many against the new trend, if given an opportunity why would anyone subject themselves to negative health risks? Quite honestly it’s a layered issue.
The stigma surrounding underage usage of drugs and other substances isn’t new, and East certainly hasn’t escaped this mentality. Juul has exploded in popularity especially among young users, and many parents and concerned students are quick to blame flavors.
Mint, mango, menthol, and many other flavors are available for vapers to use and refill when needed. Users describe the flavors as smelling good and tasting even better. According to users and regulators alike, it is certainly a selling point for the company. But it’s hard to determine if this is the main selling point for teens, and the issue is highly controversial.
“From what I’ve seen the flavored pods only attract users, especially people like us. People in high school. It’s easier to hide and easier to get away with, plus it just seems like the flavors are more fun to use,” said a student who stands adamantly against the vaping epidemic at East.
Even Juul Laboratories acknowledged the role that flavored pods play in the appeal.
“We are sensitive to the concern articulated by [FDA] Commissioner Gottlieb that ‘flavors play an important role in driving the youth appeal,’ and understand that products that appeal to adults also may appeal to youth.” The company’s statement read.
Juul controls approximately 72 percent of the e-cigarette market, and due to the mass increase in underage nicotine usage, the FDA isn’t willing to look past the epidemic. On September 12th, the FDA gave Juul, along with other e-cigarette companies, 60 days to construct a plan to reduce usage amongst adolescents. If unable to find a solution, retailers and manufacturers alike may face criminal charges for illegal marking towards minors.
Juul, in response, has ended the retail sale of flavored pods and has shut down most social media. Additionally, their online store has added an extra layer of age verification.
For an educator, the situation is complex. Teachers are not police officers, and their first obligation is to teach, not search for Juul pods. Still, there is a need to maintain a classroom filled with sober and clear thinking students. Joe Simmons, a U.S. History and Government teacher, has had to manage Juul use in his classroom.
“You just look for signs,” Simmons said. “You look for a kid with their head down, maybe turned a certain way. Or that kid who asks to go to the bathroom every day at the same time.”
He believes juuling at East to be a significant issue, but that many adults are not aware of the severity of that culture.
“There is probably a vaping culture at East, but it’s being done in places where adults are not constantly present,” Simmons said. “There are signs constantly around the school. You’ll find pens kids have dropped in the hallway or around the classroom. It’s hard to hide, because of the smoke and the smell.”
But still, he believes that the problem is an instance of failed education.
“I don’t think students fully understand the ramifications of vaping,” Simmons said. “If I were in administration, I would definitely be pushing the educational aspect.”
Simmons argued that it’s a hard task to enforce the current rules, and many kids are convinced they can avoid punishment.
“I don’t think it’s an enforcement issue, it’s more kids thinking they can get away with it,” Simmons said. “It’s really hard for someone who hasn’t been exposed to that culture to identify.”
Administration likewise is grappling with this issue.
“We have been made aware of the vaping issue,” new principal Ken Proulx said. “The anonymous tip line has had a couple of reports. We have been monitoring bathroom usage in between classes, there have been signs around campus inviting students to join a vaping club, we are keeping an eye on that.”
Proulx, much like Simmons, agrees that education is the key to stopping e-cigarette use.
“Unfortunately, I think that juuling and vaping has been promoted as a healthy alternative to smoking,” he said. “I think that we need to look at how we are educating students so they understand the dangers.”
However, Proulx recognizes that eliminating substance use is a difficult task, particularly among high schoolers.
“I think that substance use in high schools is probably always going to be something,” Proulx said. “Thinking back to when I was in high school, kids were experimenting with substances. I think that as adults we need to be cognizant and be intentional in how we support students.”
When asked for specific solutions, however, it is clear that the new principal is still laying out his game plan.
“I think that when addressing student behaviors, we need to be consistent,” said Proulx. “When we as an admin team meet, we review our discipline procedure. We will meet to make sure we are all on the same page. You take a look at the student’s behavior, and then you give the appropriate consequences to support the student’s success.”
By Kate Beisner, Features Editor, and Skyler Boyer, Managing Editor