The Proliferation of Vaping in Schools: A New Nicotine Addiction Epidemic

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Written By: J. Lasswell
April 25, 2023

Explore the alarming increase in vaping among adolescents and its impact on schools.

“I work at a charter school. In 14 years, we've never had an expulsion hearing... This year we've already had SEVEN, all due to vaping. We get emails about students on OSS and they are kids who have NEVER been in trouble, and while I used to freak out and wonder how so-and-so got in trouble, who did they fight, etc... Now I know it's just vaping; it's always vaping. I've heard that other area schools have already taken a "don't ask don't tell" policy and pretend they don't see it, since it's basically impossible to police anyway. Then I found out recently that most of ours weren't even weed... Just nicotine vaping!! So is an entire generation of kids basically smoking now, after we really thought we killed the smoking industry? 😔” 

This is a quote from a thread on the r/teachers subreddit from user "LowerBackPain" - a perspective that’s shared on many online forums by teachers who are bewildered by the sudden proliferation of vaping in their schools. As teen cigarette use has been down to around 9% from 36.4% in 1997 when rates peaked, parents and educators are frustrated that this new technology has reinvigorated a seemingly out-of-fashion industry’s most precarious market: teenagers. As e-cigarettes, or “vapes” now allow teens to ingest higher concentrations of nicotine more discreetly, the allure of a cigarette’s nostalgic style has been replaced by convenience.

Not only does the effort to vape discreetly pose as a major distraction to the 14.1% of high school students reporting using electronic cigarettes and their peers, but research has shown that psychoactive substances have the potential to affect the process of maturation during adolescence, which could result in an increased risk of developing a substance use disorder. As nicotine is indeed a psychoactive substance, it’s important that decision-makers don’t take this sharp upturn in nicotine usage for granted, otherwise, the current student population is potentially at risk of facing higher substance-abuse rates than their preceding classes. While there are certainly other risk factors for drug abuse, such as delinquent peer influences, poor parental monitoring, and alcohol availability, parents and teachers cannot ignore the normalization of habits that establish the impulse-reward response, which is a hallmark mechanic of drug abuse and addiction.

Another equally alarming element of this issue is the young age at which these vapes are becoming accessible. In 2022, 3.3% of middle school students reported current e-cigarette use with 11.7% reporting daily use. How are adolescents under the legal age able to purchase nicotine products able to access nicotine products? While most adolescents (78.2%) reported owning a vaping device, the vast majority of vape use among adolescents is attributed to borrowing someone else’s vape (72%). Adolescents who vaped more often didn’t own their own vape, suggesting that the majority of vape use in K-12 schools is done so socially, in groups, or passed amongst a social group. If school leaders want to address the problem of vaping in their schools, they should consider that the social dynamics of vaping are a more pressing issue than how the vapes are obtained. 

According to a 2021 survey, friends were the most common source of the first nicotine vaping product, with 59.7% of respondents identifying them as the source. Other sources included family members or relatives (16%), and stores (8%). The data showed that age, sex, race, awareness of vape advertising/marketing, and self-esteem played a significant role in the source of the first vaping product. Older teens were more likely to identify a friend as the source, while younger teens were more likely to identify a family member. The study also found that adolescents that were introduced to vaping by a friend were more likely to have been exposed to vaping-adjacent advertising on social media. This is important, as it indicates the possibility that e-cigarette advertisers are targeting friend networks on social media, as it is more opportune to market these products to a group of friends, rather than an individual. In the effort to curb vaping in schools, leadership should be aware that rehabilitating a friend group could be a more effective approach than rehabilitating an individual.

While there hasn’t been adequate enough research into the psychological reason why teens are picking up nicotine addictions at alarming rates, we can certainly see what demographics are more susceptible. Young adults higher in anxiety and lower in conscientiousness are more likely to use vapes, and lower conscientiousness further predicted current vape use and vape susceptibility. Young adults with lower socioeconomic status, those not pursuing education further than high school, and current smokers were more likely to use vapes. It’s concerning that students in an “opportunity deficit” are more likely to pick up a habit that can increase their risk of abusing drugs in the future. The proliferation of vaping in schools poses dangers that extend beyond the damage it can cause to successful students' lives. In fact, it compounds the frustration already experienced by lower-performing students, adding to the challenges they face.

“…Our district has a student code of conduct that prohibits possession and use of tobacco products. Same for illegal drugs. Policy states that they are sent to the Alternative school for at least 20 days, up to 60 days for repeat offenders. It's really difficult to catch them doing it. We catch them in the bathroom and now, mostly we catch them vaping on the bus. (bus driver and videos). It's really difficult to find the stuff. The vape pens look like markers. The cartridges are very small. Neither of them set off the metal detectors. Last semester alone, we busted 8 kids, and one girl was smuggling in the cartridges for her boyfriend. Our campus resource office is fed up. It costs $800 to have the cartridges tested for THC and the county DA will not prosecute for simple possession. So now we have a revolving door of kids going to Alternative school and then back to their regular school. The parents are clueless. 90 percent of the time, the kids don't even know what they're smoking. The best success we have had is with education. Our AP pulls them aside and has them watch a video about vaping. Which seems to scare them. I think we are doing grade level assemblies when we return. We were informed that we will have another batch of students headed off to Alternative school when we come back from winter break. smh.”

This anecdote posted by Reddit user “dkstr419” in the same reddit thread illustrates the frustrations educators are up against, as the system of disciplining and rehabilitating student vape users is seemingly fruitless, as well as an immense expenditure of time and resources. It also shows that students may respond well to information about the health risks associated with vaping, but if we’ve learned anything from the ineffectiveness of the D.A.R.E program, “scaring” students into sobriety doesn’t have successful long-term outcomes. 

While the ultimate solution for curbing vaping in schools remains elusive, it seems that a good place to start would be identifying friend groups that use vapes and providing them with guidance and initiatives to help promote their success after high school, along with promoting mental health resources school-wide. Certainly, this is much easier said than done, but making meaningful changes in the landscape of student behavior has always been a long process. As educators are the ones directly involved in this endemic issue, their input regarding possible solutions should be of the utmost importance; these are the people most in-tune with the surrounding stressors and social dynamics of their student population. 

In the near future, we’ll explore the possible solutions that schools are using to curb vaping in schools, but the more we can educate ourselves on the current situation, the more effective our solutions will be.