LEWISTON — School administrators within the Lewiston School District have noticed an alarming increase in the number of students who use e-cigarettes. It’s a nationwide trend that hasn’t skipped over the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, more than 3.6 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018. From 2017-18, the use of the products increased 78 percent among high school students and 48 percent among middle school students.
“The big uptick was really this fall,” said JoAnne Greear, principal at Jenifer Junior High School. “And I think it’s more prevalent than what we are seeing.”
Underage students who are caught using e-cigarettes are given a three-day suspension and a citation as a minor in possession of tobacco.
The use of e-cigarettes spans all demographics and happens at all academic and economic levels within the schools, Greear said.
Chad Arlint, assistant principal at Lewiston High School, said he’s dealt with the issue more this year than in years past.
“I’d say we had a honeymoon period when kids were coming back (to school), but a week or so after school started, we saw it,” Arlint said. “It’s a pretty big concern of ours. … I know it happens frequently.”
The problem with some e-cigarette varieties is they are easy to conceal and they come in all shapes and sizes. The popular brand Juul looks more like a USB drive than it does an e-cigarette.
And the ample amount of flavors of the vape pods — or the cartridges the products use — give off a different smell that is harder to detect than traditional cigarette smoke.
Restrooms seem to be a popular place to smoke, Greear said, and kids have come up with clever ways to avoid detection.
Administrators fear students and parents don’t know the possible health dangers associated with the products.
“The companies did a great job of taking our kids and convincing them it’s somehow less dangerous, less addictive and all of that, but it’s the exact opposite,” said Hilary Gruehl-Laughrey, a ninth-grade teacher at Jenifer, during a meeting with area legislators earlier this month.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states e-cigarettes contain chemicals that can be harmful. It also states teens’ brains are still developing, which means they are more likely to become addicted to nicotine.
That worries administrators, who said many students don’t seem to realize the products they smoke do oftentimes contain nicotine.
“They think water vapor is coming in and water vapor is coming out,” Greear said.
Despite concerns, there are no definitive in-depth studies.
“The research on e-cigarettes is young because the products have only been around for a little over a decade, so unfortunately we do not have any long-term studies to reference,” said Tara Macke, public information officer for Public Health-Idaho North Central District.
A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says evidence suggests e-cigarettes “are not without health risks,” but overall the products “are likely to be far less harmful than conventional cigarettes.”
The information shows those who smoke e-cigarettes are more likely to move on to the real deal.
“Among youth — who use e-cigarettes at higher rates than adults — there is substantial evidence that e-cigarette use increases the risk of transitioning to smoking conventional cigarettes,” according to the report.
The Food and Drug Administration recently issued a plan to restrict the sale of flavored electronic cigarettes and cigars. Juul, the most popular e-cigarette on the market, took action to help keep its product away from minors by voluntarily pulling some of its popular flavors from the shelves of convenience stores.
The nicotine cartridges used in Juul products include about 200 puffs, which is equivalent to one pack of cigarettes.
Administrators don’t know if it will be enough to stop the increasing trend.
“It’s already out there and kids are aware of it,” Arlint said. “So I think it’s a little late.”
As for the health department, there has been an uptick in teens who have been referred to its tobacco cessation support program, called Freshstart, Macke said.
The education of parents and teens is essential to help curb the problem, officials said.
“I think it’s just important for parents to be aware of what’s out here, that it is harmful and that it is relatively new, so we don’t know exactly the repercussions of it,” Arlint said. “They just need to be aware of what their kids have because it’s very deceiving as far as what the oil looks like or the devices.”
This article first published in the Lewiston Tribune.