Vapor Pen Use Is on the Rise at Schools

Devices hit kids with heavy doses of nicotine
Vaping devices are a growing problem for schools, with students attracted to kid-friendly flavors and a sense of mystique. Lindsay Fox

Parents, if you haven’t heard of Juuls, read on, because even children as young as 12 are being lured by these sleek e-cigarettes, or vaping devices, small enough to be concealed and often mistaken for an innocuous flash drive. They come with disposable cartridges in kid-friendly flavors like peach, blueberry, creme brulée, and cotton candy. Yet each pod offers a dose of nicotine equivalent to that of a pack of cigarettes. What’s more, due to the inconspicuous appearance of this device — which can be plugged into a laptop to charge, and has commercial names like Cloud 2.0 and microG — it’s all happening right under the noses of unsuspecting parents and teachers. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4 of every 100 middle school students reported in 2016 that they had used some form of electronic cigarettes within the previous 30 days, while the United States Food and Drug Administration reported that e-cigarette use among high school students increased by 900 percent between 2011 and 2016. Last year, the Surgeon General reported, “E-Cigarette use among U.S. youth and young adults is now a major public health concern.”

Electronic cigarettes, which include Juuls, are small vaporizers that heat water, along with a flavor, nicotine, and other chemicals, to a boiling point so that the vapor can be inhaled. Psychologists and researchers believe that teens are attracted to vaping not just because it is a novelty and therefore has an inherent element of fun, but because it is considered more socially acceptable than smoking cigarettes or using other traditional tobacco products.

Today, “Juuling in the bathroom” is a problem so widespread in schools around the country that it prompted middle and high school administrators on the East End to send out emails warning parents about the dangers of e-cigarettes, e-hookahs, vape pens, and other discreet forms of inhalation. Many  schools have reported incidents of students being caught covertly using, or in possession of, these devices while at school; all of the apprehended students faced serious disciplinary consequences.

In an email from the East Hampton School District, Adam Fine, the high school principal, reiterated the district’s code of conduct, which forbids the “possession, use, or sale” of e-cigarettes on school property.

The Ross School sent home a similar email restating the school’s conduct policy, which prohibits the use, possession, or distribution of any e-cigarette or vaporizer paraphernalia, and reminding students and parents that “the school reserves the right to expel a student on a first violation of this policy.” 

Administrators are also urging parents and guardians to play a greater role in shaping teens’ attitudes about drugs and alcohol. “We all play a critical role in prevention efforts and setting clear and consistent values and rules,” wrote Jeanette Tyndall and Bill O’Hearn, the respective heads of Ross’s middle and high schools. “As such, it is vitally important that we remain informed and current with information about substances commonly used and abused by adolescents, and are aware of their legal and health implications.”

For many parents, the foremost concern is that vaping devices, including vape pens and e-hookahs, can be used to consume marijuana, cocaine, T.H.C. liquids, and other drugs, making substance abuse easier and less detectable. Vaping paraphernalia is also inexpensive and easily available online. On the Juul website, for example, a starter kit costs $49.99, and it appears the customer need only check a box to confirm he or she is 18.

Educators say that until the F.D.A. issues clear, updated guidelines and health warnings on e-cigarettes, it is primarily up to parents to educate themselves and their children. School administrators and psychologists, for example, suggest that parents let their children know that a vape pen, or a Juul, is just another name for an e-cigarette. (One Massachusetts high school sent out emails with the header “Here is a Juul device disguised as a Sharpie pen.”) Whatever the devices are called, parents are advised to inform their children that they deliver powerful hits of a very addictive drug: nicotine.

On Tuesday, Charles Soriano, the East Hampton Middle School principal, followed an earlier email urging parents to talk to their children with one that alerted the school community to the news that Ken Alversa and Chris Jack, police officers, will be joining the school’s educational support team to conduct “fireside chats” with each grade on Monday morning.

Dr. Soriano concluded his email by saying, “I have heard grapevine tales of some parents who are suggesting that [e-cigarettes] are harmless: Just vapor or just nicotine. This could not be farther from the truth. . . . Unfortunately, this sort of thing is enticing to youngsters, and the commercial marketing around them doesn’t help: It’s like the Marlboro man all over again, only now he’s become tech savvy.”