More students are vaping in Manatee County. What’s behind the e-cigarette boom?

Vaping and education don’t mix, Drug Free Manatee says

Alison Bergmann, of Drug Free Manatee, explains the harmful effects of nicotine and e-cigarettes.
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Alison Bergmann, of Drug Free Manatee, explains the harmful effects of nicotine and e-cigarettes.

As technology becomes more prevalent, even addictions are battery powered. The use of electronic cigarettes is growing among students in Manatee County and beyond, a risk to both their health and education.

Modern e-cigarettes, or “vapes,” emerged in 2007 and became noticeably popular among America’s youth about seven years later. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an update called “Progress Erased,” highlighting the downfall of traditional tobacco and the rise of a new epidemic.

“Nicotine exposure during adolescence impacts learning, memory, and attention and primes the brain for addiction,” the report states.

E -cigarettes are simple in design. In general, a battery powers the device, a coil produces heat and a small tank of juice is converted into vapor. The juice usually contains nicotine, and while it produces less carcinogens than a traditional cigarette, vaping is still harmful to the nation’s youth, according to the American Cancer Society.

While they aren’t new, e-cigarettes are growing in popularity across America.

The School District of Manatee County disciplined more than 340 students for possessing or using an e-cigarette this year, an increase of more than 15 percent over the previous school year, according to district records.

The records mirror a trend seen around the country. But data from the Florida Department of Education, self-reported by each school district, makes the problem seem almost nonexistent in Manatee County.

School districts are expected to report vaping as “tobacco” use in a state database called SESIR, the School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting system, but Manatee officials said they weren’t aware of the requirement.

In local public schools, a growing number of students are vaping:

  • In 2014-2015, there were 143 incidents (41 tobacco incidents in SESIR).
  • In 2015-2016, there were 140 incidents (37 tobacco incidents in SESIR).
  • In 2016-2017, there were 161 incidents (49 tobacco incidents in SESIR).
  • In 2017-2018, there were 295 incidents (12 tobacco incidents in SESIR).
  • In 2018-2019, there were more than 340 incidents (not available in SESIR).

“Although electronic cigarettes do not contain tobacco, they do contain nicotine and should be reported as a SESIR tobacco incident,” the state DOE said on its website.

The agency updated its definition of tobacco to include the word “nicotine” in 2014-2015, encompassing more than just cigarettes, according to DOE spokeswoman Audrey Walden.

But district officials weren’t informed about the requirement until March, according to Skip Wilhoit, the district’s safe schools, dropout prevention and student intervention specialist.

“I didn’t see any communication coming down from the state to actually get on that,” he said.

He explained that Julie Collins, a program specialist in the DOE’s Office of Safe Schools, visited for regular training in March, and she urged Manatee to report vaping incidents to SESIR.

Manatee will start reporting students’ use of both traditional tobacco and e-cigarettes in the upcoming school year, Wilhoit said, adding that Florida should update its reporting system. The state DOE has a code for tobacco but not e-cigarettes, and though it now tracks nicotine of all kinds, vape juice doesn’t always contain nicotine.

He said Manatee started tracking the use of e-cigarettes at a district level in the 2016-2017 school year, and he scoured discipline records to find the numbers for past years.

Wilhoit said campaigns throughout America eroded the “cool factor” that tobacco companies once enjoyed, slowing the growth of traditional smoking, but vaping soon took the place of cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and other products.

“Wow, what a celebration, and then all of a sudden this hits and now it’s a crisis,” he said.

Everyone is at risk

Much has changed since Brownsville Station released “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room “during 1973, but some things never change.

Students have been known to vape in campus restrooms and lock the doors, frustrating their peers, said Alison Bergmann, the project director for Drug Free Manatee.

Other students have smoked in the back of their classrooms, filtering the light vapor through a sweatshirt. The smell is faint, and none of their peers want to be labeled as a tattletale or snitch, Bergmann said.

Some parents even condone vaping, fearing the more harmful alternatives. Schools have contacted parents when their child is caught, only to find out that a parent bought the e-cigarette to steer their child away from traditional cigarettes— a story shared by district administrators and Bergmann.

“Parents get very upset when they’re confiscated and they’re not given back,” she said.

This video from the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General advises parents to "Know the Risks," and highlights how e-cigarettes have the potential to cause lasting harm to the health of young users, especially their brain development.

While district records show a clear spike in the use of e-cigarettes, they only reflect students who were caught. The 2018 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, given to a sample of middle and high school students, offered a wider perspective.

Manatee landed among 12 counties where vaping was the most severe. Of the students who responded, 25 percent or more said they smoked a vaporizer in the past month.

Perhaps the local opioid crisis overshadowed other harmful substances, Bergmann theorized. Vaping could seem like a nonsensical issue compared to the daunting issue of overdoes and deaths, but a lifelong addiction to nicotine is no small matter, she continued.

“We have forgotten about underage drinking,” she said. “We have forgotten about nicotine and cigarettes, and we certainly have not been paying attention to vaping. And I’ll say that it’s easy to do, because people are dying with the opioid epidemic.”

Throughout middle and high schools across the U.S., e-cigarette users jumped from 2.1 million to 3.6 million between 2017 and 2018, an increase of more than 71 percent, the CDC reported. The agency also said that vaping could lead to traditional cigarette smoking.

According to the CDC, the top three reasons for vaping in middle and high schools during 2016 were:

  • The use of e-cigarettes by a friend or family member (39 percent).
  • The availability of flavors such as mint, candy, fruit or chocolate (31 percent).
  • The belief that e-cigarettes are less harmful than other forms of tobacco, such as cigarettes (17.1 percent).

The agency also noted that vaping could benefit adult smokers if they abandon tradition forms of smoking. In a recent statement, the Food and Drug Administration said it was trying to curb vaping among students while also preserving the resource for adults who are trying to quit cigarettes.

However, if the trend continues, government agencies may crack down on e-cigarette companies — regardless of who is affected.

“With the staggering data on youth trends, we’re struggling to preserve these opportunities for adults while addressing the youth epidemic,” the FDA said in February.

What is being done?

On April 30, the Florida Senate approved a bill that would increase the minimum purchasing age from 18 to 21. It died in the House a day later.

Two Democrats introduced a federal bill that would prohibit the online sale of e-cigarettes. “Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019,” a bill filed in the House of Representatives last month, has yet to pass a committee review on Friday.

And regardless of existing laws, at least six local businesses were accused of selling vapor products to a minor last year. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office cited each shop during an undercover operation in February 2018.

Companies will always find a way to sell their products, and that’s why education is the first line of defense in local schools.

“You don’t ever want to tell somebody how to parent their child,” said Bergmann, of Drug Free Manatee. “But at the same time, you want to make sure the information is readily available to them, so they know this is really dangerous.”

She said the organization has Youth in Action teams at nearly every public high school in the county. Students identify the pressing issues at their campuses, and at least four teams are dedicated to the issue of smoking and vaping.

Bergmann also emphasized the need for better mental health resources. Youth who battle with depression are two times more likely to smoke e-cigarettes and four times more likely to smoke traditional cigarettes, according to the Florida Healthy School District Collaborative.

“If they can’t cope in a healthy way, they’re going to cope in an unhealthy way,” Bergmann said. “Whether it’s to pick up a gun, whether it’s to pick up a cigarette or a joint or a beer.”

The school district hosts several programs — Health Opportunities through Physical Education, Students Together Against Negative Decisions and Students Working Against Tobacco — that touch on the same issues, said George Schrier, director of student services.

Many of the prevention efforts are organized by district staff and fueled by concerned students.

“That’s a goal we strive for because, as educators, we realize that students have more influence on students than adults do a lot of the time,” Schrier said.

Students often lose out on class time, whether it be to smoke or face discipline. And if the e-cigarette is loaded with THC oil rather than nicotine, an option on some devices, the student is referred to law enforcement.

Schrier said the school district also created a hub for e-cigarette facts on its website, a way for parents to start their research on the topic of vaping.

The Botany Bay demonstrates what the Juul e-cigarette is and why it has recently become so popular.

The most popular e-cigarette, Juul, is a slim device that accepts eight interchangeable flavors, offering about 200 discreet puffs in each disposable pod. While some accused the company of marketing to children through a variety of flavors, others tout the product as a way for adults to quick smoking cigarettes.

After immense public scrutiny and a surprise visit from the FDA, Juul announced an action plan in November. Juul said it stopped accepting retail orders for its mango, fruit, creme and cucumber juice pods, restricting their sale to the company website. Its also raised the age restriction on customers to 21 and up.

The company said it would later offer the flavors to brick-and-mortar stores if they followed Juul’s new age restriction.

While the move sends a proactive message, Juul later made national headlines for its lobbying efforts around the country, including efforts to stop a ban on flavored juices.

“We certainly don’t want youth using the product,” Juul stated in its action plan. “It is bad for public health, and it is bad for our mission.”