The new reality of smoking at Kansas high schools is visible in the parking lots, where used-up Juul pods have taken the place of cigarette butts.
“You can pick up the discarded Juul cartridges all over the concrete,” Andover High School school resource officer Heath Kintzel said of the popular vaping brand. “It’s everywhere.”
Kansas school officials told the state Board of Education on Tuesday that vaping is an increasing epidemic. In 2017, about a third of Kansas high school students tried vaping at least once. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of students vaping increased by 80 percent.
That has educators looking for a solution.
“For me, it was pretty eye-opening in terms of just the amount of vaping that had occurred in a short amount of time,” David Stubblefield, the executive director of school administration for the Blue Valley Unified School District, told the board. “It really exploded exponentially in the last two or three years."
Vaping — that is, electronic cigarettes — almost always involves nicotine, the same addictive chemical found in traditional cigarettes. It usually involves flavors that would appeal to younger smokers.
Some adults have turned to vaping to quit smoking, though the Food and Drug Administration does not approve e-cigarettes for that use. The Centers for Disease Control acknowledges that while e-cigarettes could help some smokers quit, there isn’t enough research to say how effective they are. There also hasn’t been enough research to fully understand the health consequences associated with vaping, partially because of e-cigarettes’ fast adoption.
Plus, the devices often look like pens and USB drives. Some are built into hoodie strings. They can give off little smoke. This allows them to go unnoticed, especially in schools.
“Unless you physically see a student holding it, using it, blowing the smoke from it, it is really difficult to know when kids are actually using it in a school,” said Andover principal Kristen Kuhlmann.
The main recommendation for combating e-cigarettes: education. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said students may not know there is nicotine in their e-cigarettes.
The department also recommended lessons for teachers to better identify vaping.
But education officials are bracing themselves for a long campaign against vaping, much like the decades-long process of reducing traditional cigarette use.
“They’ve just burst upon the market,” said Mark Thompson, a consultant on health for the Kansas State Department of Education. “We’re really playing catch-up here.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha.
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