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When It Comes to Vaping, High School Principal Says, ‘We Misjudged the Level of Addiction’

Fresh off his appearance in New York City last week alongside New York State Attorney General Letitia James, Adam Fine, the principal at East Hampton High School, will accompany seven students and his counterpart from Southampton High School to bring their anti-vaping campaign to the floor of Congress.

The seven students, Erin Kennedy, Lucia Ibrahim, Olivia Davis, Samantha Prince, Valeria Guevara, Zoe Leach, and Julianna Jurkiewicz, have formed a group they call Breathe In Change. They, along with Mr. Fine and Southampton’s Brian Zahn, will head to Washington, D.C., to testify on Dec. 10.

“We want to do everything we can to make this a national movement. We feel that we have the power to influence lives beyond our community,” the students said in a collective statement this week.

Recently, the teens visited the Springs School and the Montauk School to talk directly with students there — no teachers in the room — about the dangers of vaping with Juul products and other types of devices. The students of Breathe In Change said their visits to the two schools were important.

“The most important thing we wanted to share with the students is that we are not adults and are not going to lecture them to never vape,” they said, “but that we want to give them the facts and have them listen to our experiences in order to make the right decisions themselves. . . . It allowed us to connect with the kids on a more personal level and allowed them to be increasingly honest with us. When the teachers left, you could feel the student energy change and they immediately became more confident in talking to us. The kids were able to relate with us on a new level. We were no longer being watched — it was just a conversation between us and the students.”

At Ms. James’s press conference, in which she announced a sweeping, multimillion-dollar lawsuit against companies that manufacture and sell vaping products, Mr. Fine said he is “in the trenches” and that the vaping epidemic cuts across gender, race, ethnicity, age, and economics to impact hundreds of kids at East Hampton High School.

“We misjudged the level of addiction that it’s created,” Mr. Fine said. “Now we’re seeing kids with real problems, real nicotine addictions, and kids who don’t want help. They say, ‘I know I have a problem, I don’t want help.’ They need help but they don’t want help.”

“It’s definitely a surreal feeling” to be at the forefront of the fight, he said. “With that comes a huge level of responsibility. . . . It’s a lot of talk and discussing the problem, but what I feel like we’re missing is viable solutions to it. I don’t have a solution to stop kids from making these decisions, except to create a greater awareness of the problem.”

Companies like Juul have been accused of marketing their flavored e-cigarette products toward adolescents. New York State Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has signed a ban on flavored e-cigarette products, but a handful of manufacturers successfully sought a temporary restraining order to keep the rule from going into immediate effect.

In a recent statement to The Star, a Juul representative said, “We need to urgently address under-age use of vapor products and earn the trust of regulators, policymakers, and other stakeholders. That is why we are focusing on taking aggressive actions to reduce the access and appeal of our products . . . and supporting and complying with the [Food and Drug Administration’s] final guidance on flavored products once effective.”

Meanwhile, instances of vaping-related illnesses continue to rise, and at East Hampton High School, the students of Breathe In Change are making a difference — including through Spanish-language translation by Valeria and social media efforts by Lucia.

“We think our peers definitely reacted to our message and the awareness we’re trying to spread,” the students said this week. “For the first time, teenagers are really starting to see how much Juuls and other vape products harm people, and [we] believe we have a hand in that. We have received a lot of support through our Instagram page from a variety of followers. Many students are now using us as a resource asking questions and seeking help.”

Christine Sampson/The East Hampton Star