Smoking is becoming trendy again as Henry County middle and high school students are getting hooked on nicotine via e-cigarettes with flavors like cotton candy, chocolate and strawberry.
Ten percent of students in the county have tried an e-cigarette at least once and 3 percent are vaping regularly, according to the 2016 Iowa Youth Survey, which is the most recent data available. Across Iowa, 12 percent of students reported they had vaped, and 4 percent were vaping.
The numbers are scary, said Chris Kempker, tobacco prevention and youth development coordinator at Iowa State Extension and Outreach.
“They perceive the smell of (cigarette smoke) as dangerous … but maybe there’s a perception that e-cigarettes are just water vapor, so therefore, it’s less harmful,” she said. “The thing we need to educate the kids on is that nicotine is the addictive substance in all tobacco products. That’s what you’re getting when you’re using an electronic cigarette.”
Kempker said it takes some teenagers only three cigarettes to get addicted to nicotine. Smoking one pod in a JUUL e-cigarette is the same as smoking 20 cigarettes, she said.
While the amount of cigarette smoking by middle and high school students decreased from 2011 to 2017, the use of electronic cigarettes drastically increased. About three out of every 100 middle school students and 12 of every 100 high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, according to a national report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All nicotine products were banned four years ago under the Mt. Pleasant Community School District’s tobacco and drug policy, an effort headed up by Kempker.
Both fifth- and sixth-graders will learn about the dangers of e-cigarettes during a life skills program taught by Kempker and Darbee Wellman, Henry County Extension Office agriculture and youth educator. This is the first year sixth-graders will hear the message in both grades.
“These kids have grown up in a generation where they don’t see people smoking in restaurants,” Kemper said, adding that when students see the increased acceptance of vaping, they think it’s OK to vape. “Studies have shown kids who are using electronic cigarettes are three times more likely to go on to use a regular tobacco product. It’s somewhat of a gateway into tobacco use.”
While Mt. Pleasant Middle School Principal Nathan Lange said he has only twice disciplined students at the middle school for vaping, it’s a trend he wants to stay ahead of by informing students.
“For a long time, smoking was the cool thing to do,” Lange said. “I think we’ve moved past that where there is enough awareness within even our students at the elementary ‘don’t smoke, don’t smoke, don’t smoke.’ We just preach that. We need to start doing that with vaping.”
The conversation about e-cigarettes will be part of the health curriculum at the Mt. Pleasant Middle School. Over the course of a school year, middle school health teacher Austin Newbrough will have all 440 students through his classroom.
In Newbrough’s classroom, students ask repeatedly if e-cigarettes are healthier to smoke than cigarettes, what’s in an e-cigarette and whether they are addictive, he said.
“I would say they want to learn more about it, so they have a better understanding of it,” Newbrough said. “I’m trying to teach these students that just because they think it looks cool, doesn’t mean it isn’t as harmful. It’s equally as harmful.”
According to the CDC report, 60 percent of teenagers incorrectly believe that e-cigarettes are mostly comprised of flavoring. Most aren’t aware the products contain nicotine.
Students say they try e-cigarettes out of curiosity, for the flavors, for social reasons and because they think it isn’t unhealthy, Kempker said. While you have to be 18 years old to purchase an e-cigarette, Kempker said that most students buy them online.
Teachers can have a hard time detecting some e-cigarettes, Kempker added. One of the most popular e-cigarettes is a battery-powered device shaped like a USB flash drive, called the JUUL.
“You’re not going to smell the smoke, but if you see puffs of vapor that’s a giveaway,” Kempker said. “That’s a hard thing for teachers to see too because it’s easy to hide.”
Nicotine can harm adolescent brain development, which continues until the age of 25, by affecting attention, learning and susceptibility to addiction. “The amount of danger to the brain is very high,” Kempker said.
Lange encourages parents to partner with the school to watch out for signs of e-cigarette use in their children. Kids are starting to use e-cigarettes earlier and earlier, Lange said, meaning parents need to be proactive.
“We know there’s a certain population of our students who are engaged with vaping. We’re hoping to curtail that,” Lange said.