The use of electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes — known colloquially as ‘vaping’ — by young people remains a serious health concern in schools around the county, experts say.
Lea County is no exception.
After a natural decline with students out of school most of last year due to COVID-19 restrictions and closures, school officials report vaping in the schools is as prevalent as ever, eclipsing traditional cigarettes in most cases. One parent told the News-Sun their child had been approached to buy vaping supplies on a bus operated by the Lovington Municipal Schools.
LeAnne Gandy, LMS superintendent, confirmed Thursday a parent had made a report to the school. Gandy said district officials reviewed video and audio recordings from the bus at the time in question and could not confirm such a transaction had occurred.
“But we’ve absolutely had vaping issues” in the Lovington Schools, Gandy told the News-Sun. “We have confiscated some vape pens, a couple of vape pens on the bus during the year.
“Every school I know of, it’s a battle we are fighting with young people,” she said. “We’re working proactively to try to get the message out to our students and to our families about how dangerous vaping is.”
E-cigarette use in Lea County schools is occurs primarily in the upper grades, school officials said, with the majority in the high schools.
The only Lea County district not hearing reports of vaping in the schools in Eunice. Superintendent Dwain Haynes told the News-Sun he hasn’t “heard one peep from any principals about vaping at all. That’s not to say it’s not going on. We just haven’t experienced it in the school.”
According to a 2020 Monitoring the Future survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of teenagers who reported vaping roughly doubled between 2017 and 2019. The survey goes out annually in February and March to students in eighth, 10th and 12th grade around the country.
FROM MORE THAN 44,000 responses, the number of eighth graders who reported vaping increased from 7.5 percent in 2017 to 16.5 percent in 2019; the number of 10th graders increased from 15.8 percent to 30.7 percent over the same period, and 12th graders who reported vaping went from 18.8 percent to 35.3 percent. In 2020, the rates held steady at a respective 16.6 percent, 30.7 percent, and 34.5 percent, according to the reports.
“I don’t know how big of a scale it is, but we do have kids who are vaping,” said Gene Strickland, superintendent of the Hobbs Municipal Schools. “It’s more popular. I just wish kids would recognize the risks. It’s not as harmless as one might think.”
And, anecdotally, vaping seems to be replacing the use of more traditional tobacco products — particularly cigarettes and “smokeless tobacco” — in popularity in the schools, Lea County superintendents said. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the issue for school officials is where the young people are getting e-cigarettes.
The federally mandated minimum age to purchase e-cigarettes legally is 21 years old.
“That is the age-old question,” Strickland said. “There’s the song from decades ago talking about smoking in the boys room.
“That’s always the case, unfortunately,” he said. “But those who are of age or have the authority to sell them will hopefully pursue doing the right thing (and not sell to minors) because it’s the right thing.”
But access to e-cigarettes, which use heat to aerosolize a nicotine-based liquid, which is then inhaled into the lungs, is not limited to specialty stores or convenience stores. There’s also a host of websites for businesses, typically outside the United States, which aren’t as meticulous as most local businesses about confirming customers are old enough to legally purchase, possess and use electronic cigarettes.
“There are sanctions for selling to minors,” Gandy said. “I do believe (local businesses) are working diligently to protect their business. I do believe they’re putting the effort forward” to keep vaping materials out of the hands of minors.
“I don’t know how they’re getting a hold of” e-cigarettes, said Greg Slover, superintendent in the Tatum Municipal Schools. “It has to be older kids, older siblings or students, who are probably selling them.”
Tatum and similar, smaller school districts have a distinct advantage over larger districts, Slover said. With fewer students, faculty and staff have closer relationships and are more likely to hear about what’s happening in the schools, he said. And with fewer students in the school, fewer numbers of students are vaping.
“Percentage-wise, we probably have the same percentage as Hobbs does or anybody else does,” Slover said. “It’s just not as many people.”
And e-cigarettes are tougher to detect. In many cases, they’re small, easily concealed in a pocket, purse or backpack, and can look like computer thumb drives, pens or makeup cases, the superintendents said. Using an e-cigarette also doesn’t leave behind a detectible miasma of burned tobacco, said Brian Snider, superintendent in the Jal schools.
“It’s smoke free, so it’s almost undetectable,” he said. “And the (devices) are really small, too, so they’re hard to detect.”
Strickland agreed, noting the vapor is “odorless. And if a kid chooses to hold his or her breath long enough, noting is expelled. It’s much more inconspicuous than other smoking or behavior of that nature it’s used to simulate.”
There are also significant health concerns associated with e-cigarette use, particularly by young people.
“THERE’S A PERCEPTION out there (vaping) somehow is not as bad because it’s not smoking,” Snider said. “Just because it’s not a cigarette, that doesn’t mean they don’t have substances that are harmful for kids in them.”
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said nicotine — the active, addictive chemical found in 99 percent of e-cigarettes sold in the United States — can damage areas of the brain that control attention, learning ability, mood and impulse control. Nicotine changes the way synapses are formed in the brain, the neurological structure between brain cells believed to be responsible for memory retention, the report said.
And nicotine isn’t the only thing in the vapor users inhale, the report went on to say. The vapor contains extremely fine particulates that are taken deeply into the lungs along with heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead, and other chemicals studies have linked to lung cancer.
“And it’s unlawful — that’s the end of the conversation with me,” Snider said. “If it’s not legal, there’s no discussion about it.”
Schools are taking a number of steps to address the youth vaping problem in their districts. Hobbs, for example, is installing special sensors in key locations that will detect the vapor from e-cigarettes. In Lovington and other districts, video and audio monitoring is used to keep tabs on all manner of student behavior on busses and elsewhere on district property, Gandy said. Much of the onus, too, falls back on the family.
“There’ve been cases where families have told us they found a vape pen on a kid,” Slover from Tatum said. “They can help out if they watch at home — what’s on the dresser or what’s in the pockets?”
All the school district leaders said vaping and e-cigarette possession is treated the same as any other prohibited substance in the schools, with varying levels of sanction depending on the severity or frequency of the offence, ranging from in-school suspension to potential expulsion.
Fighting the problem starts with getting information about all the possible consequences of vaping into the hands of the students.
“Education,” Strickland said. “Unfortunately, that kind of education only occurs through experience. I’d hope we can educate kids in a positive manner talking about risks, but we have students who don’t learn that lesson until they risk their health or the health of someone they love and care about.”