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Vape school takes aim at e-cigarettes

Across the country, schools are struggling to curtail teen use of e-cigarettes.

The sun is just about to make an appearance on a crisp February morning as a group of lethargic teens sits silent in a large room at R.G. Drage Career Center.

One by one — almost if triggered by the one before — they let out sleepy yawns and rub their eyes.

At 7:30 a.m., Tuslaw School Resource Officer Deputy Chad DeBos closes the door. Anyone not inside the classroom isn’t welcome to attend the diversion program he is hosting.

With a warm smile, DeBos, a former Army paratrooper and military intelligence officer, welcomes the students with a stern warning: They are required to participate in the discussions and exercises.

The eight students from area schools are all there for the same reason: They had been caught using or in possession of an electronic cigarette on school property.

The teens are part of a diversion program aimed at first-time offenders. DeBos won’t spend the next four hours beating them over the head about how they screwed up. Instead, he wants to educate them about the law and the dangers and consequences of using electronic cigarettes.

“It doesn’t matter what my opinion is,” he told the students. “It’s against the law in Ohio and it’s also against school rules. If you have an open mind, you might just learn something.”

Across the country, schools are struggling to curtail teen use of e-cigarettes.

High increase in users

Since 2017, there has been a 135% increase in e-cigarette use among high schoolers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, since 2018 more than 3.6 million middle- and high-school students reported using an e-cigarette, or vape pen, in the past 30 days.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared teen vaping an epidemic in 2018.

Like many other school administrators, Tuslaw High School Principal Adam McKenzie saw a bump in the numbers. Students were brazenly using the products in class and in the cafeteria.

“All kids experiment, but these were good kids making bad decisions,” he said.

They are seeing kids so addicted to the nicotine they can’t make it through the school day without vaping.

At the diversion program, DeBos asked those attending if they were addicted. Most reluctantly agreed, but others, like Manchester High School senior Paul Presutto, said he could stop at any time.

He vapes because he wants to and will stop whenever he wants.

Studies have shown that nicotine in adolescence can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control.

The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services reports juveniles who consistently smoke through adolescence are at a significantly greater risk to use alcohol and marijuana and abuse and become dependent on other drugs.

With more cases of illness and death related to vaping, officials have stepped up efforts to determine the impact. Scientists are still learning about long-term health effects of using electronic cigarettes.

Safer doesn’t equal safe

As of Feb. 18, a total of 2,807 hospitalizations or deaths related to e-cigarette use have been reported to the CDC. Sixty-eight people have died.

The CDC reports emergency room visits related to e-cigarettes or vaping products are on the decline since peaking last September. They attribute the slowdown to increased public awareness, the removal of vitamin E acetate — an additive in some THC-vaping products — from some products, and stepped up law enforcement actions.

DeBos said many are under the misconception that vaping is safer than smoking a traditional cigarette. Some students admitted their parents encourage them to vape rather than smoke cigarettes.

Electronic nicotine delivery systems use an e-liquid that may contain nicotine as well as other compounds, including flavorings, pryopylene glycol and vegetable gylcerin, according to the FDA.

During the diversion program, DeBos also warns students about THC and vitamin E acetate.

The CDC’s research has found that THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that gives a person a high, is the main culprit in most of the recent reported lung injuries and deaths.

Vitamin E acetate is a synthetic oil and commonly added to vape juices to thicken or dilute the liquid. When inhaled into the lungs, it returns to a sticky residue that coats the organ, DeBos said.

“The bottom line is vaping any product with vitamin E acetate puts you at a greater risk of developing a serious lung injury or even death,” he said.

Even more disturbing, the research on the harmful effects of vaping isn’t keeping pace with the use, DeBos said.

“We have millions of new young vapers addicted to or becoming addicted to nicotine,” he said. “The CDCs investigation is not over. Scientific studies are examining the potential health effects of e-cigarettes.”

He reminded students the youngest reported death was a 15-year-old, and the youngest reported illness was a 13-year-old.

Repeating history

DeBos doesn’t want to see the students repeat history.

The use of cigarettes began to rise throughout the early part of the 20th century as the nation entered World War I, and continued to rise until the 1960s when people began talking about the impact on health. In 1965, the Surgeon General put a warning on cigarettes and while use continues there has been a steady dip.

Electronic cigarettes were marketed as tools to help someone stop smoking.

Students attending the February diversion class admitted they tried vaping while in middle school. One student said he began using in elementary school.

Many of them had family members who smoked traditional cigarettes or a vape pen.

Manufacturers are targeting teens, pushing the flavors and pens that are easily concealable or look like other products such as watches or a container of candy.

“Right now they are doing something that we don’t know how it will impact their life,” DeBos said. “If you swim with sharks it doesn’t mean you will get bit, but the more and more you swim with sharks, eventually you are going to get bit. Safer does not mean safe.”

Education, awareness

DeBos knows many of the students that pass through the diversion program aren’t going to stop, but he is hopeful they leave better educated and able to make more informed decisions.

Since starting the program in September, 98 students have been assigned to the diversion program. The majority — about 40% — are freshmen.

DeBos took the lead in developing the project and welcomed any district to participate. Tuslaw, Fairless, Northwest, Sandy Valley, Minerva, Canton Local, Louisville and Manchester all take part.

Manchester High School Assistant Principal Scott Ross said the program has been a big help and puts the focus on educating rather than handling it from a punitive standpoint.

“We’ve seen benefits with it and had kids come back saying it was a worthwhile program,” Ross said. “Word about the program spread fast among the students.”

He believes education through the diversion program and at school, as well as the national media attention regarding the health impacts are getting students’ attention.

“They are smart enough to realize we are seeing real data and real lives are being impacted,” he said. “The problem has led to healthy discussions going on here at school and at home.”

He knows kids still vape, but believes parents and adults are more aware of the devices and what to look for.

Ross said they have begun to address what students are doing in school, now they have to address the choices they are making outside of school.

Officials share concerns not only for vaping but for the Dab pens, a device similar to an electronic cigarette, but utilizes dabs, a tiny concentrate of THC.

Ross fears a growing number of kids are willing to take a risk and buy the THC product “on the street.”

McKenzie shares the same concerns.

Both administrators say conversations with students are making a difference.

They agree they are seeing fewer kids getting caught in school, but they are not sure if fewer students are using, or if they are not bringing the products to school or have just gotten better at concealing it.

Regardless, the use and possession of vaping products is against the law and school policy.

The law

In October, legislators upped the age for nicotine use.

It became illegal for anyone under 21 to possess, use, purchase or receive cigarettes or other tobacco or alternative nicotine products like e-cigarettes. Previously, the official age to buy tobacco products was 18.

Earlier this year, superintendents across Stark County received a letter from Stark County Family Court indicating they would no longer accept juvenile tobacco or vaping possession charges in court, DeBos said.

Previously, law enforcement could charge someone underage with a non-criminal status offense for use or possession of tobacco products.

DeBos said the loss of the court system takes away another option for students who violate tobacco use policies.

School punishments vary, but can include in or out-of-school suspension.

“We felt as a school what we are trying to do was give our students another option,” he said. “We don’t want them to be out of school. We want to keep them in school and educate them.”

DeBos hopes to continue to build on the program and meet the needs of the students. That means educating younger students about the harmful effects of vaping before they start and to follow up with those who went through the diversion program.

He held mini-education sessions with fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Tuslaw and plans to expand those lessons.

Some of the kids that have gone through the diversion program want to quit vaping, and feedback has been positive, DeBos said.

“It’s an effective program. I think we need the prevention pieces and the followup,” DeBos said. “It’s been an eye-opening experience for me learning from the kids about their needs.”

Amy L. Knapp/