Teen vaping epidemic continues as Colorado Springs-area schools use students to educate peers

The Gazette Online

Vaping, or smoking electronic cigarettes, during an assembly, in a class or in a school bathroom isn’t as unusual as it might sound.

In fact, it’s a big problem, said Mesa Ridge High School senior Ron Sides, who’s leading a student-produced awareness video about the topic.

“We have a tight drug policy, yet we continue to see quite a few suspensions for vaping on the premises,” he said.

The attitude of teens is similar to that of the 1950s toward traditional cigarettes, Sides said: Kids think vaping makes them look cool and that it’s a benign substance.

“I want to get across that vaping is not good for your health, to the contrary of what people might have heard,” Sides said.

“There have a bunch of injuries and deaths because of vaping, and the primary audience of vaping are youth and children.”

In light of at least 11 deaths across the nation associated with vaping and the high use rate among Colorado teens, Pikes Peak region schools are cracking down, educating students about the problems associated with vaping and encouraging users to consider kicking the nicotine habit.

“The epidemic is continuing to increase,” said Dr. Grace Houser, a pediatric pulmonologist with the new Colorado Springs location of Children’s Hospital Colorado.

National data the New England Journal of Medicine released this week shows usage among certain middle and high school grades has more than doubled from 2017 to this year, she said. One in four high school seniors had vaped in the past month, the study concluded.

Colorado high school students had the highest rate of vaping in a survey the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted in 2018.

Among 37 states, Colorado led the nation with 27% of high school students using e-cigarettes — more than twice the national average of 13%.

In El Paso County, 23% high school students reported vaping within the past month in the 2017 Colorado Healthy Kids Survey, a biennial study of adolescent behaviors.

Billed as a safe alternative to smoking and sold in Colorado and 31 other states to those 18 years and older, electronic cigarettes have become fatal.

More than 450 cases of a mysterious vaping-associated lung illness, including six people in Colorado, have been reported since August. The majority of the 11 people who have died were aged 18 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some were under 18.

In addition to nicotine in e-cigarettes being “highly addictive,” Houser said, the substance lowers impulse control, creates mood swings, decreases attention spans and reduces learning ability in developing teen brains.

Carcinogens, such as heavy metals, are found in the electronic cigarette aerosols, she said, and flavorings have been shown to cause detrimental effects when inhaled.

“Even though it’s marketed that way, there are no studies that show e-cigarette use is safe,” Houser said.

The issue is “a definite concern among middle and high school staffs in our district,” said Devra Ashby, spokeswoman for Colorado Springs School District 11, which has more than 26,000 students.

Vaping devices can be difficult for teachers and other staff to recognize because the units are small and can look like flash drives, pens or other school supplies.

New products designed to conceal e-cigarette smoking are contributing to hidden usage and difficult detection, said Houser.

For example, a Colorado-produced hoodie has a small tube in the strings near the neck that connects to a vape pipe in a pocket. A hydration pack from the same company features one tube for water and another that’s connected to a vape device. Other products convert items such as a highlighter into a vape device.

Several El Paso County school districts are considering installing vape detectors, which can be placed in bathrooms or locker rooms where security cameras are not allowed. The units, similar to fire alarms, send text messages to school officials after detecting a change in air quality.

The new detection devices are receiving mixed reviews, Ashby said.

“Some say the devices don’t detect the ghosting phenomenon — a way to vape without the emitting a massive smoke puff — which many students across the country have already caught on to,” she said.

D-11 has not purchased the detectors, Ashby said. “We are still weighing the positives and negatives.”

Schools are working with El Paso County Public Health to convince students that vaping, just like smoking traditional cigarettes, drinking alcohol and using drugs, is bad for their bodies and minds.

Classroom talks, assemblies and fair booths are among the strategies.

“We typically drive home the message that vaping is not harmless,” said Jenny Best, a community health educator with the health department’s Tobacco and Prevention Partnership program.

Health department presenters provide the facts and resources so students can educate themselves and make up their own minds about vaping, Best said.

“Like with adults, there’s a lot of misconceptions,” she said. “We’re not there to tell you what to do, or to quit, but to provide the resources so you can make the best choice for your life.”

Nine schools, up from five last school year, have tobacco prevention clubs that focus on educating peers on the harms of tobacco use.

School districts also use policies to prevent risky behaviors like vaping. It’s a violation of school board policy in all local school districts to vape on school property.

School District 49, the region’s third-largest district, has incorporated electronic smoking devices into its existing tobacco-free campus policy, said spokesman David Nancarrow. The policy prohibits possession by students, staff and visitors on school grounds.

Student violators face potential disciplinary action, including detention and exclusion from extracurricular activities, Nancarrow said.

In the case of multiple violations, students may participate in a “Second Chance” online course as a restorative measure instead of suspension. The D-49 board of education just added the restorative justice option “based on the emergence of vaping technology,” Nancarrow said.

Academy School District 20 students caught vaping also face disciplinary actions that can range from in-school suspension to bans from extra-curricular activities. Repeat offenders can be suspended, said spokeswoman Allison Cortez.

D-20’s Liberty High School is one of several schools in the region awarded $3,000 grants from Students Working Against Tobacco. Students and teachers will build awareness campaigns, including creating a two-hour class about the dangers of vaping, Cortez said. Students caught vaping would be required to take the class, she said.

Students vape daily at school, and while some are caught, others are not, Liberty High Principal Alan Thimmig said in a letter sent to parents last school year. He included a list of resources for parents and plans a similar letter this year, Cortez said.

Rampart High School’s student journalism and production class is working on public service announcements about the problems with vaping, Cortez added.

At least two local districts, Harrison D-2, the region’s most ethnically and economically diverse district, and Fountain-Fort Carson D-8, which has about 70% of its enrollment connected to military families, report no increase in student e-cigarette use.

One Harrison D-2 student was caught last year shortly after school started, which also has been the case for this school year, said spokeswoman Christine O’Brien.

“It could be an issue of students not having $13-$20 a week for Juul (a brand of e-cigarettes that uses liquid pods), compared to peers in more affluent areas,” O’Brien said.

Fountain-Fort Carson D-8 and Widefield D-3 are gearing up for a second annual “Surviving School: Tools to Navigate Life Challenges” event on Oct. 28.

A resource table will address the use of vaping and tobacco, specifically by teenagers, and the topic will be discussed during a breakout session on healthy lifestyles, said D-3 spokeswoman Samantha Briggs.

At D-3 high schools, vaping is being discussed in health classes, school assemblies and student handbooks, she said.

Mesa Ridge’s awareness video will feature students talking about how vaping is really not a cool thing, said Chip MacEnulty, filmmaking and drama teacher, as well as professionals citing facts. The video will debut in mid-October and be part of the school’s daily news broadcasts and appear on its website.

Sides, the student who’s making the video, said he hopes vaping, like cigarettes, will fall out of popularity with adolescents when they understand the health risks.


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