Vape use among local youth causes concern

Chris Deverell photo

Bottles of flavored electronic cigarette liquid and electronic cigarettes line the desk of tobacco prevention specialist Lindsay Sadorf. Sadorf uses the items to educate students and teachers about electronic cigarettes. Both Sadorf and DCHS Principal Wade Murphy are worried about how electronic cigarette manufacturers use flavored nicotine liquid to market to a young audience.

While the electronic cigarette or “vape” industry isn’t exactly new, it has seen a noticeable uptick in its fortunes and image over the last several years, fueled especially in part by teenagers.

Dawson County High School Principal Wade Murphy is worried that a growing number of DCHS students are among those numbers.

A 2016 study by the Office of the Surgeon General found that over a four-year period the percentage of U.S. high school students that had tried e-cigarettes at least once increased from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 37.7 percent in 2015.

Due to the exponential rate at which e-cig usage has increased over the last few months Murphy doesn’t have prior figures to compare to, but he says that the three he and his staff confiscated in the last month alone are indicative of a much larger problem.

“It’s very discreet, they’re easy to carry, they’re easy to hide,” Murphy said. “And it just doesn’t carry the same stigma as carrying a pack of cigarettes with you.”

In comparison to their traditional counterparts, electronic cigarettes use a liquid composed typically of nicotine, water, glycol, glycerin and flavorings. Where as traditional cigarettes rely on combustion to smoke them, e-cigs use an atomizer device to heat up the liquid into a vapor which is then inhaled.

It’s that marked difference between e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes that has left school administrators, faculty and even parents struggling to keep up. Several brands of ecigs resemble black pens, with those manufactured by the company JUUL often resembling a standard USB thumb drive. In fact, in one instance an e-cig was confiscated from a student while he was charging it through his computer.

As Murphy stated, “It’s kind of new for our teachers because obviously it’s something we didn’t grow up with or have. Everyone knows what a cigarette looks like but not everybody has seen these things, so it’s an education process for our teachers.”

Under current DCHS guidelines e-cigs fall under the same category as traditional cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. Students found using them or in possession of them face an immediate one-day out-ofschool suspension and may be subject to several penalties from law enforcement under Montana code for a minor in possession of tobacco.

Additionally, Murphy said that he’s considered revisiting the school policy and amending it for stricter punishments, though he said the health and safety of DCHS students is the number one priority and concern of the school district.

“I know that they’ve been billed as a way to cut smoking and quit smoking, but these are things our kids are getting into,” Murphy said.

While electronic cigarettes have not been around long enough for health specialists to study their long-term consequences, tobacco prevention specialist Lindsay Sadorf said that they do pose risks even in short-term usage.

Sadorf, who works with the Dawson County Health Department, said that similar to cigarette use, even short-term vape use can cause asthma flare ups, shortness of breath and symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

There is also evidence to suggest a correlation between ecigarette use in teenagers and cigarette smoking later in life.

“I would like to say that I hope it’s just a trend and would go away, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to happen,” Sadorf said. “I think it’s going to have to go to legislation, and then it will come down that we have to do something.”

Both Sadorf and Murphy worry that the way in which e-cigarette companies market their products, with fruity flavors and claims of being safer than traditional cigarettes, is responsible for attracting more younger users.

A 2015 study through the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that teenage e-cigarette users were 22 percent more likely than their non-vaping peers to try traditional cigarettes within a six-month period.

Such data, along with anecdotal accounts from fellow educators both local and across the state, is worrisome for Murphy. And while Murphy, like his peers, seeks a way to rein in student usage, he emphasized the importance of making the DCHS community and grounds a safe place for its students.

“They’re not something that should be on campus, they’re not something that kids should ever be in possession of,” Murphy said. “More than anything of course we’re concerned about them from a health standpoint. It’s not a healthy choice and we want our kids to make healthy choices and be safe.”

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“They’re not something that should be on campus, they’re not something that kids should ever be in possession of,”
Wade Murphy, DCHS Principal