Spring has sprung! What wonderful weather we’ve been fortunate to have in our beautiful Pacific Northwest region, providing us with more opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. I have taken advantage by visiting more schools, meeting students, teachers and school administrators. Among my conversations with staff, some discussions have centered around the concerning increase in vaping and the peer issues that come with that.
Recently, the Behavioral Health and Prevention Services (BHPS) department hosted a 2-day School Safety Summit where I was able to sit in on several excellent and informative breakout sessions. Among them, “Teens and Vaping: What You Need to Know”, presented by the NWESD’s Student Assistance Prevention/Intervention Professional, Chris Jury. During this session, we reviewed current trends and research, discipline response, OSPI directives, and what is working in other districts.
There has been a significant increase in the use of vaping products for middle and high school-aged students. This is a growing concern that must be met by a multifaceted prevention and intervention approach. As adults who care about the health and wellbeing of children, we must educate ourselves on the risks of using vapor products and understand how to effectively protect children against these substances that can harm their development. For clarity, vaping devices are also known as e-cigarettes, e-pipes, vape pens, mods, Juuls, and any kind of battery operated device that heats a liquid, releasing a chemical aerosol. Some look like a flash drive and are very easily concealed. In addition to nicotine, marijuana is also a common “vaping” substance.
Over the past 30 years, nicotine cigarette use by young people has significantly declined, due in large part to strong anti-tobacco prevention messaging and increased understanding of the health risks of nicotine cigarette use. Unfortunately, as vaping devices and products have become widely available over the last 10 years, there is a perception that vaping is less harmful than traditional cigarettes. Vaping has even been inaccurately promoted to help with tobacco cessation. These misperceptions and the novelty of vaping are likely contributing to the significant increases in use by young people. While the majority of youth are not using vapor products, it is imperative that we help youth resist pressure to vape and help those who have started, to quit.
Some of the current known health risks come from the ingredients in the vaping liquids and the vaporizing of these substances. Vaping liquids come in bottles or pre-loaded cartridges and are often marketed with appealing fruity or sugary flavorings. The majority of the liquids contain the highly addictive substance, nicotine, and the concentrations of nicotine are significantly higher than in traditional cigarettes. For example, one JUUL pod contains as much nicotine as a full pack of cigarettes! Young people often state they are unaware vapor products contain nicotine, thus they may also be unaware of nicotine addiction risks.
Concerns about the other chemicals in vapor products are still coming to light. The long-term effects of other vape chemicals, when vaporized and breathed into the lungs, are not yet fully realized and researched. Marijuana oils and waxes that can be vaped, are more potent and contain higher levels of THC (4 to 30 times higher) than dried marijuana. Since vaping is still relatively new and ever changing, more information is needed to fully understand the effects. There is also some risk of burns or explosions of the vaping devices themselves, as well as FDA warnings of potential seizure trigger.
We know that the developing brains of young people are much more susceptible to the effects of substances and possible addiction. Even minimal use by youth has the potential to heat up a pot we don’t want to boil over. Education, conversation, and guidance that encourages non-use of vapor products, can turn down the heat on this threat. Educators, school administrators, health care providers, youth service workers, and community members all have a role and a responsibility to ensure our youth are informed and warned about the real dangers of vaping.
Youth development is another important component of prevention. Being advocates for, and encouraging youth to speak out strongly for their health will benefit our communities in the future. We know that the more often youth hear messages that normalize non-use of vape, especially messages delivered by their peers, the more likely they are to listen. With the passing of Tobacco 21 in Washington State, we know our communities want to keep these products out of the hands of young people. Additionally, more must be done to prevent the online purchasing of vapor devices and products, and stop the marketing and advertising that directly appeals to young people.
In our region’s schools there are Student Assistance Prevention/Intervention Professionals funded through various grants and school district positions. These staff are specifically trained to provide education and support to students, as well as school staff and parents, regarding substance prevention and intervention. Our NWESD Student Assistance Professionals, who have spent this last school year compiling, reviewing and presenting the latest research and best practices regarding the youth vaping problem, are available as a resource to your schools and community. The BHPS department is also developing guidelines for prevention, intervention and discipline policies for schools that struggle with student vape use. We encourage you to spend some time looking through the following resources and reach out to the BHPS department for more information on youth vaping prevention efforts.
For more information on vaping contact:
Natalie Gustafson MS, LMFT, CMHS
NWESD Behavioral Health and Prevention Program Manager/Clinical Supervisor