Students have been vaping — and chewing, and smoking — at local schools for years, students say. But not like this year.

“(I see it) once or twice a week … I see it a lot more. Last year, I didn’t see it near as much, and this year I for sure see it all the time,” said Garden City High School senior Dezni Ortiz.

Students see classmates using electronic cigarettes in bathrooms — closed bathroom doors are straight giveaways, said senior Mariana Macias — or in parking lots. Sometimes, students will sneak the sleek pipes into class, using them when a teacher steps out or turns their back, the vapor dissipating almost immediately. Ortiz said she’s never seen anyone get caught.

Vaping, or the use of nicotine-laden e-cigarettes like the popular Juul pods, has expanded among teens nationwide over the past several years. According to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20.8 percent of high school students and 4.9 percent of middle school students currently use e-cigarettes, compared to 1.5 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively, in 2011.

From 2017 to 2018, use spiked a sharp 78 percent in high schools and 48 percent in middle schools, according to the CDC report. In an advisory last week, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams called the trend an epidemic.

The national fad is evident in Finney County schools, particularly this year, and locals have taken notice.

Following months of campaigning from LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition Grant Coordinator Donna Gerstner and students, like Ortiz and Macias, involved in local anti-tobacco Resist chapters, and the passage of similar laws in Garden City and Holcomb, Finney County became the first western Kansas county to raise the local purchasing age for tobacco products from 18 to 21, effective Jan. 5, 2019.

The goal, running alongside campaigns, classes and concerted efforts at the Garden City and Holcomb school districts, is a simple one: protect the health of a demographic historically more susceptible to addiction.

An increase in use

Garden City USD 457 Superintendent Steve Karlin said GCHS has recorded 59 student tobacco offenses for the fall 2018 semester, compared to 17 for the entire previous school year and six the year before that.

Horace Good Middle School has recorded 10 tobacco incidents this semester, and Kenneth Henderson Middle School has recorded two, compared to two incidents at each school over the past two school years. Most of the growth is due to a significant increase in e-cigarette use, Karlin said.

“At the high school, our biggest change is that we’ve seen an increased prevalence of it," said GCHS Principal Steve Nordby. "We’ve had students with e-cigarettes or other things for a couple of years, but not to this extent … We’ve tried to be proactive and educate parents, educate kids, and put out as much information as we can."

At Holcomb schools, the change is less dramatic. Holcomb High School Principal Jason Johnson said that this semester, staff had recorded only three confirmed e-cigarette incidents. Holcomb Middle School had one recorded incident last year and none so far this year, said HMS Principal Tyler Helton.

Johnson, in his first year as principal, said he expected the fad was new to HHS this semester. When he showed staff a Juul pod at a September meeting, he said no one had seen one before. With the information available, he and Helton said they did not think vaping was necessarily a significant problem on their campuses at this point, though they were still monitoring the situation.

Johnson, Karlin and Nordby said they all believed the increase in incidents to be an extension of the national trend toward vaping, spurred on by social media, viral trick smoking videos and ignorance or misunderstanding of the health consequences.

“I don’t think they understand how dangerous it is,” Gerstner said.

E-cigarette pods, such as Juul, containe much more concentrated nicotine and are very addictive, Gerstner said. A single pod is as harmful as a whole pack of cigarettes, she said, and the result is a fast track to addiction that could persist well into adulthood.

The long-term effects of the products are still unclear, but Gerstner said some users have been diagnosed with popcorn lung. Like other tobacco products, e-cigarettes have been linked to lung, throat and heart diseases, as well as asthma, blood pressure issues, diabetes and cancer, she said. The chemicals act as a stimulant and then depressant, leading to users feeling depressed or running into behavior issues, she said.

She said the vapor — a type of aerosol — falls on nearby surfaces, such as a school desk, as a person vapes, easily exposing others in the same place to the harmful chemicals.

The products are marketed toward young people she said. A starter Juul pipe and pod is $1, and the pipes come in different designs and the pods in sweet or fruity flavors, Gerstner said. They are meant to be easily concealed, small and disguised, sometimes as flash drives.

On campuses, students smoke socially, passing pipes and trying smoke tricks they’ve seen online, Gerstner said. Older students often pass products down to their younger classmates or siblings.

“Once they start vaping, they are so addicted that that’s all they think about. And that’s why they have it with them in school. They just need a hit. It’s that addictive, that they can’t wait,” Gerstner said.

The sentiment was one Ortiz has seen firsthand — a friend had gotten a job chiefly to make enough money to afford her vaping habit, she said. Most of the friend’s money was going directly to the addiction, Ortiz said, and the job took up most of her free time and she had less time for friends.

Macias said she has seen classmates struggling with depression turn to e-cigarettes, which she said only made things worse. Despite educational information, she said, classmates see the habit as manageable and temporary.

District responses

Responses to incidents at Holcomb schools are catered to the student and the circumstance, Johnson said.

Consequences for tobacco use or possession on campus range anywhere from student or parent conference, detention and in or out of school suspension, Johnson said. Helton said that following last year’s incident, the school increased student supervision outside of classes.

In USD 457 schools, punishments for students with tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, are swift and direct. On a first offense, the student is suspended out of school for up to three days and barred from all student activities, including sports events, performances, dances and more, for at least one month, according to district policy. On a second offense, the suspension stretches to three to five days and the activities ban to a semester.

A third offense results in expulsion for 186 days, which can be redacted if the student completes a drug and alcohol education and rehabilitation program, according to the policy.

Once a month, representatives from Finney County Youth Services hold a drug and alcohol prevention program mandatory for students caught violating the policy, Nordby said. HGMS does not have access to the classes on site, but students are required to take them on weekends, said HGMS Principal Brad Springston.

Beyond that, USD 457 created a campaign to educate students across the district about the health ramifications of vaping, Karlin said. Staff showed students a filmed interview with Gerstner and a student video breaking down the consequences for smoking on campus, and LiveWell provided informational pamphlets about Juuling that went out to parents at parent-teacher conferences, he said.

Gerstner said the district’s plan, from the strict punishments to the rehabilitation classes to the campaign, is a thoroughly effective one.

Nordby said the response has been effective — the school noticed a drop in tobacco-related incidents at the end of the semester.

“As soon as they saw that there was a problem, they jumped on it,” Gerstner said about USD 457’s response. “They did not wait. They were very proactive.”

Gerstner spoke in Holcomb this semester, but the district has not otherwise made any specific strides to address vaping on campus, Johnson said. A “core team” of student representatives from each grade is working to promote a better holistic culture at the school through positive peer pressure, Johnson said. The team, new this semester, may address “vices,” like tobacco and alcohol use, eventually, but are currently promoting self respect, he said.

“Though, not directly related to the issue, we believe that if we attack poor characteristics in the school, when we get to the subject of vaping, it will be accepted more openly … We have seen a few changes in students’ attitude at school. We hope to see enough changes to really attack the drug and vaping subject by the end of the school year,” core team member Cade Palmer said in an email.

Macias and Ortiz were not sure how effective USD 457’s tactics have been. Macias said some classmates saw the campaign, partially run under a motto similar to “Juul is not cool,” as cheesy and a joke. Students were often shocked by the health information and campaign videos, but did not see it as necessarily pertaining to them, she said. Vaping is seen as a temporary hobby, not an addiction.

Ortiz said she didn’t remember seeing any video shown in individual mentoring classes throughout the campaign, and wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t alone. Regardless, she thought a counselor or in-person speaker may be a better, more interactive way to spread the information.

T-21, passed in Garden City last year before this semester’s spike in usage, was a step in the right direction, the students said, but there were other things they thought the district could do.

Students could be reminded of on-campus resources, like the counselors, Macias said. Or teachers that had themselves struggled with addiction could offer insight through their experience, Ortiz said.

Or, Macias said, students could be given the chance, as Holcomb students were attempting to do, to be leaders through their actions.

“Maybe something we can do is teaching the teens that it’s important to be the example for younger kids. I think instead of … telling them what they’re doing wrong, telling them how to do it right…” Macias said. “We kind of hate being told that we’re wrong when we’re doing something wrong, and we’d rather be told something we could do right and some way we could help and how we could be better.”

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.