Vaping in Oklahoma Schools – Jenks Student Coordinator Shares Concerns About Youth Vaping Epidemic

“I’m seeing kids now who are panicked about not being able to stop.”

Paula Lau, student assistance coordinator for Jenks Public Schools, works extensively with kids on issues such as alcohol and substance abuse, but her biggest concern right now is the immense increase in vaping.

“Four years ago, we had 19 tobacco violations in the district. Last year, we had 118,” Lau said. “And we know it’s a far bigger problem than we’re led to believe. We can’t catch them all.”

school bathroom

Lau had concerns from the very beginning. E-cigarettes and THC vapes were released into the market without any conclusive testing or regulation, and authorities made no definitive statements regarding their impact on health and safety. She said it was during this time of inconsistent messaging and indecision that the craze took hold.

“I honestly think vapes are more pervasive than cigarettes ever were,” she said. “I see it across all demographics. From higher income to lower income and athletes to academic types, a lot of kids are vaping. There is no particular group exempt from this.”

With their sleek designs and charging capabilities, vapes have become another tech gadget in the digital revolution to be carried just like smartphones, earbuds and wearables.

“Often, teachers aren’t even aware what they look like because they look just like flash drives,” Lau said. “There are so many different shapes and sizes. It’s hard to stay on top of it all because it changes so rapidly.”

The emissions, too, have become easier to hide. Where early vaping technology produced thick clouds of aerosol, recent developments have limited the exhale to nearly undetectable levels.

“The huge plumes of smoke used to be a dead giveaway,” Lau said. “Now it’s just smell. A strong scent of strawberry or vanilla is the only real indication that vaping has happened.”

While the majority of e-cigarette and vaping associated illness (EVALI) cases have been traced back to Vitamin E acetate in THC vapes, Lau says that tobacco vapes are still dangerous. The misconception that vaping is safer than smoking is a prevalent one among adults just as much as youth, and the severity of the side effects is often underestimated. Traditional lung diseases affect concentrated portions of the lung. But EVALI is different.

“It’s unlike anything doctors have ever seen before,” Lau said. “Parents hear ‘lung illness’ and think it’s a cough or mild pneumonia. People don’t understand that the entire lung is being inflamed and diseased.” She said that often, the decline is so rapid that a victim is in the ICU within one or two weeks and require treatment even more robust than a ventilator to oxygenate the blood. “People can’t live like that very long,” she said.

Parents and school administrators will have to get creative to find solutions to this youth-led epidemic. Vigilant observation of behavior and side effects and regular open discussions are among the most effective strategies for prevention.

“Education is the key to this,” Lau said. “Parents are still the number one deterrent when it comes to drug and alcohol use, including vaping.”

The primary location that youth are caught vaping at school is in the bathroom. With the internet, access is practically ubiquitous, but one main source of vapes for younger kids is older kids. Lau hopes that raising the age limit to 21 will reduce this point of access.

“We have to start educating kids as early as fifth and sixth grade because most high school kids say they started in middle school,” she said.

Consistent messaging is a key component to education and prevention. Lau says that kids receive so many mixed messages on the internet and from adults that a rigorous anti-vaping campaign similar to the one waged against tobacco is necessary.

Lau has a list of signs to watch out for, many of which apply to other substance abuse behaviors:

  • Unexplained sweet odors in room or on clothes.
  • Secretive behavior, such as making frequent excuses to go to the bathroom or outside, or being overly protective of their phones and conversations.
  • Demand for money, especially among younger kids, and/or an unexplained loss of funds. (An e-cigarette habit requires money and connections.)
  • Withdrawal symptoms:
    • Behavioral: anxiety, irritability or explosive anger
    • Physical: blood pressure issues, digestive issues or insomnia
  • Unfamiliar electronics.

Among the public school efforts to mitigate this issue are vapor sensors in bathrooms and youth-centered educational campaigns. Disciplinary actions include confiscating the devices and exposing students to after-school programs such as Op Aware and Teen Intervene, which includes a three hour interview with a counselor. Lau says more personalized approaches are effective.

“I want to start a quit vaping club. I’m concerned about parent backlash about confidentiality, but I think it’s needed,” she said. She aspires to structure the club like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where kids can share their journeys to quitting, and club leaders can direct them to helpful resources. Regular meetings decrease the likelihood of relapse and create a space of nonjudgmental accountability.

“I think the lung illnesses and deaths have really caught the attention of young people,” Lau said. “They’re kind of in this phase where they don’t know how to quit, but they know they should. They key here is prevention, educating them before they even start.”

Visit the Tobacco Stops With Me resources page for strategies and materials.

Here are some resources for parents and teachers:

Published by Tobacco Stops With Me on January 23, 2020