We don’t typically talk about vaping in teacher prep programs. And yet, as we all know, vaping now impacts the classroom experience in most middle and high schools. The practice is so prevalent among tweens and teens that the United States Surgeon General declared e-cigarettes among youth an epidemic in 2018.
Teachers nationwide worry about student use of e-cigarettes but are unsure about how to address the issue. We asked Amy Taylor, Chief of Community Engagement for Truth Initiative, a nonprofit committed to ending tobacco use and nicotine addiction, to weigh in on educators’ most pressing questions about vaping.
“So many of my students have told me that it isn’t as bad as cigarettes, and they don’t want to quit. How can we help these kids understand the actual impact of vaping?”
Many students don’t realize that vapes—specifically, the liquid inside e-cigarette cartridges—usually contain nicotine. Some have very high levels of nicotine, in fact.
“There is more nicotine in these products than in combustible cigarettes,” Amy says. According to the Juul website itself, a typical cartridge (or “pod”) contains about as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes.
A lot of young people start vaping in an attempt to lessen their stress, anxiety, and depression. “They are turning to vapes because they think vaping will help them mellow out. That’s how vape companies are marketing these products: You need a break? Want to calm down? Use this,” Amy says. “But the truth is that vaping can amplify feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression. And because there can be so much highly addictive nicotine in these products, when people try to cut back, they can end up stressing about how to get their next hit.” Plus, there’s also the physical stress and mental anxiety that come with nicotine withdrawal.
Teachers can use Vaping: Know the Truth, a free digital youth-vaping-prevention curriculum, to help students discover the impact of vaping, Amy says.
“Young people are more likely to listen to other young people, so teachers can introduce the curriculum and then take a backseat and let students interact with the curriculum, which covers the history of tobacco and nicotine and talks about how the e-cigarette industry is trying to dupe them,” she says. “It also talks about what nicotine does to the developing mind and gives students tips on things they can do to ease their anxiety, rather than turning to a vape.”
“The new vaping pens are so discreet! We have students sharing vapes in bathroom soap dispensers and hiding them in their bras and underwear. We want to curb this behavior but feel stuck when it’s so easy to go under the radar. What advice do you have?”
“These products are ever-changing and easily hidden by students,” Amy says. “They can look like anything from a USB port to a highlighter to a pen.” She recommends that schools provide teachers with professional development regarding vaping.
“Teachers need to be educated about what these products look like,” she says. Also helpful: a review of behaviors that might indicate e-cigarette use. “Some of the signs that young people may be vaping include frequently asking to go to the bathroom or putting their hoodie string into their mouth. Some of these products are so little that you can stick it into the hood of your hoodie, reach over, and take a hit.”
Teachers who spot e-cigarette use should intervene. “We absolutely need to take these products out of the hands of young people,” Amy says. Confiscating e-cigarettes can also prevent or limit device sharing, which can contribute to the spread of respiratory infections.
“My school has struggled with creating a discipline policy around vaping. Any suggestions around this or any examples you can share of how other institutions are having success in this area?”
Some schools have instituted a zero-tolerance policy and suspend students who are caught vaping (or in possession of vaping equipment). But “we don’t think that’s the way to go,” Amy says. “Instead of penalizing these young people, let’s give them information and knowledge so they can understand how to make different choices.”
Remember: most vapes contain nicotine, a highly addictive substance. Students who are addicted to nicotine may experience headaches, nausea, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, anger, hunger, and strong cravings when they don’t vape. So, addicted students may reach for e-cigarettes during the school day, regardless of likely disciplinary action.
That’s why the American Heart Association’s Tobacco-Free Schools Toolkit suggests “appropriately structured ‘alternative-to-suspension’ programs that incorporate cessation strategies [to] guide students toward quitting … while remaining fully engaged in their education.”
Schools may want to use the Vaping: Know the Truth curriculum with students who are caught vaping. Another helpful resource: This Is Quitting, a free and anonymous text-based program designed to help teenagers and young adults quit vaping. Youth can join for free by texting DITCHVAPE to 88709.
“What’s the best way to communicate with parents about the dangers of vaping and help get them on our side?”
Educators can work with the PTA to include information about vaping—including resources such as Vaping: Know the Truth and This Is Quitting—in materials shared with school families. The PTA may even consider hosting an informational night during which administrators and the school nurse can share facts about vaping and its impact on child health and learning.
Parents of children who vape can text QUIT to (202) 899-7750 to receive text messages designed specifically for parents of vapers, Amy says. This info can help parents understand what their children may be experiencing. Parents will also learn how to effectively support youth who are trying to quit.
“We are considering putting vape sensors and detectors in our school restrooms. But it’s a big cost, and we’re worried that it won’t do much to curb the actual behavior. Are vape detectors worth the investment?”
Vape detectors don’t address the root causes of vaping, so their presence is unlikely to significantly decrease vaping.
“Providing vaping-prevention curriculum and vaping-cessation services is frankly a better use of resources,” Amy says. “Underlying all of this is the anxiety and stress that our young people are facing. We need to provide alternatives so they’re not turning to their vapes.”
Truth Initiative and Kaiser Permanente (in collaboration with the American Heart Association) joined forces with EVERFI to develop and distribute a vaping-prevention curriculum called Vaping: Know the Truth. Click here to learn more.