By Suraj Sait
A cloud of smoke settles over the bathroom next door to Mr. Petrucci’s classroom, permeating each and every stall. It’s the passing time between periods and the bathrooms are full of students determined to sneak in a puff during the school day. These students may be unaware, but they represent a new epidemic that has hit high schools in the last three to five years: vaping.
Vaping is the act of inhaling the vapor created by an electronic cigarette. High school students have turned to vaping the way many of their parents may have to smoking 20 or 30 years ago. Back in the 1980s, smoking at EGHS was so prevalent there was a designated smoking area. In more recent years, thanks to an aggressive public anti-smoking campaign and stricter laws, teen cigarette smoking has become a rarity.
Enter the vape pen, a device that looks a little like a computer flash drive or an actual pen, with a promise of fun flavors and a little buzz. According to medical officials, vaping is less harmful than regular cigarette smoking, but it is not safe. In particular, the vaping liquid contains nicotine, a toxic, highly addictive substance that raises blood pressure and spikes adrenaline. Perhaps more significantly, much isn’t known about the other chemicals in vape flavors and their long-term effects on a person’s health.
At EGHS, an estimated 20 to 25 percent of students vape regularly. Whether it be in the bathrooms or the locker rooms, in parked cars or behind the bleachers, vaping is near ubiquitous. Furthermore, the number of students who have tried vaping even once is a lot higher. According to School Resource Officer Chris Rafferty – an estimated 70 percent of EGHS students have tried a JUUL or other vape device.
While students will acknowledge the prevalence of vaping, not everyone’s a fan.
“There’s no in between. “Everyone else I know that has done it is literally addicted or hates it,” said one student.
Why do students vape? One probable cause is anxiety, with many students reporting stress both anecdotally and on school surveys. To cope with a heavy school workload, some turn to vaping as an escape.
“I vape to keep my mind off of school as I enjoy the time with my friends,” said one junior.
Another perhaps more obvious reason is social pressure. Conformity is a virtue in high school, and teenagers seeking to fit in may engage in vaping to fit in, however reckless it may be.
“They ‘have’ to do it in order to see themselves as risky and cool,” said a sophomore.
Other students are just willing to try something – anything – new.
“I just take whatever they give me,” said a student. (All the students in this article asked to remain anonymous.)
Apart from these situational factors, biological factors may play a role as well. According to Bob Houghtaling, longtime head of the drug prevention program in East Greenwich, some people may be genetically hardwired to have a predisposition to substance abuse. Whether it be biological, social or medical, various factors propel students to vape.
The EG school district has established a number of preventative measures to address the vaping epidemic. The first time a student is caught vaping, they get detention and are referred to Bob Houghtaling. The second time, they get a one-day school suspension and are referred to Houghtaling (again) and the Juvenile Hearing Board. The aim of the Juvenile Hearing Board is to help students correct a teen’s undesirable behavior rather than to punish them for it. Sometimes that means trying to deal with the underlying reasons a student might vape.
Additionally, Houghtaling speaks to students at all the EG schools, to inform them of the dangers and costs of vaping.
Despite the district’s stance against vaping, high school students still want to do it. Vice Principal Jeff Heath, the chief disciplinarian at EGHS, said it can be difficult to catch students vaping. Vape pens are small and despite the smoky vapor, vaping is easier to hide than cigarette smoking.
It hasn’t helped that vape manufacturers have targeted their advertising to the young, similar to how cigarette companies targeted young people decades ago, through characters like Joe Camel. The ban on tobacco advertising is limited to rolled tobacco products (i.e. cigarettes); since vapes contain oil, companies are allowed to advertise those products. Whether it be television, magazines, or even the radio, commercials have almost become as ubiquitous as the practice. And, on social media, numerous celebrities have advocated in favor of vapes and e-cigarettes.
The increased presence of vaping in modern society has led many to seek reforms and possible changes in the law. While Europe has already begun regulating e-cigarettes, the United States has remained neutral on the issue. Because of this neutrality, and the increase in vaping in the past three to five years, many schools have been caught off guard and have not formulated policies to deal with the epidemic. That may be changing; there is a movement, in Rhode Island and throughout the United States, to raise the minimum purchase age for a vape to 21.
A large part of the solution to the vaping epidemic, officials say, comes in “changing the narrative.” In other words, changing the way that students perceive and understand vaping. With countless college students vaping, and plenty of positive endorsements from celebrities, vaping has become a cultural norm. Breaking this norm is a tall order, says Houghtaling. It will require parental vigilance, education campaigns, legislative movements, schoolwide crackdowns, and a reform in the teenage mentality. It won’t be easy, school officials warn.
But, with persistence, perhaps the smoke hovering over the bathroom next to Mr. Petrucci’s room will vanish like the cigarette smoke of years past, carried away by the winds of change.
Suraj Sait is a rising senior at East Greenwich High School.