“You would go to the bathroom and see a puff of smoke and smell mango or bubble gum. It felt like suddenly it was everywhere,” said Lian Thompson, a sophomore at Lyme-Old Lyme High School and a member of Responsible Educated Adolescents Can Help (REACH). “People would leave class together to share a Juul in the bathroom, vape on the bus, take the risk of doing it in class to be satisfied even though it’s illegal.”
In a matter of months, vaping has become an everyday part of school life in Old Lyme. Students are vaping in class, in the locker rooms, on the bus, at practices, at parties, at home, say students attending the school. A Juul – the most popular brand of e-cigarette – looks like a thumb drive and leaves a smell that lasts just seconds, making it difficult for teachers or parents to detect.
“Freshman year someone asked if they could use my computer to charge something, they pulled out what I thought was a thumb drive and plugged it in. It was actually a Juul and the librarian walked right by,” Thompson said.
This week the Connecticut legislature passed a bill to prevent sales of all forms of nicotine to those under 21. The bill was introduced by the Public Health Committee in the hopes that it will help prevent young people from becoming addicted to nicotine while their brain is still developing.
“We have 95 percent of addicted smokers starting before the age of 21,” said Sen. Mary Abrams, the co-chair of the Public Health Committee the day the bill passed. “I have seen the life-long health effects, and life-ending effects, that tobacco products bring. We know that these products are related to cancer, heart disease and other ailments. And we have to do whatever we can to become a barrier between our children and the people who want to target them. That is what Tobacco 21 is about. This issue rises above politics – it is about the health and safety of our children.”
“I am very worried about the increase in vaping throughout our middle and high school populations. Having been to community forums and speaking with parents and students, it’s clear there are also concerns throughout the district. Reducing access to e-cigarettes and traditional tobacco products is good for public health and good for our communities. Several cities and towns have already taken the proactive step to raise the age of purchase to 21, so it made sense to me for the state to follow suit,” explained State Rep. Devin Carney, who has a seat on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, and supported the final version of the bill.
In December of 2017, the Lyme-Old Lyme school district conducted a biannual survey, and the results were staggering. The number of students who had tried an e-cigarette – or Juul – had doubled, or more than doubled, in every grade. Over 40 percent of 12th graders admitted to trying it at least once and nearly 35 percent said they had ‘Juuled’ within the last 30 days.
“When we got the results back in February we were alarmed,” said Mary Seidner, the director of the Lymes’ Youth Services Bureau (LYSB).
This local trend is reflected in national surveys.
According to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and partnering organizations, there was a 78 percent increase in e-cigarette usage among high school students and a 50 percent increase for middle school students. A 2018 Monitoring the Future survey by the National Institute of Health showed 37.3 percent of 12th graders reported “any vaping” in the past 12 months, compared to just 27.8 percent in 2017.
REACH has given a number of presentations on vaping at regional forums and state-level conferences. As more towns across Connecticut realize the extent of the problem, the youth group has fielded additional requests for help. The good news is that early awareness of the problem has given Lyme-Old Lyme an edge in curving the addictive behavior in local schools.
But – as Seidner points out – vaping is not only a school issue.
“If a kid is vaping in school they’re doing it at home. This is not a school problem, it’s a world problem,” Seidner said.
Compared to other drugs and alcohol, many parents and young people were unaware of the harmful effects of ‘juuling,’ or even that the product contained nicotine.
“Most of us didn’t know that there was such a high amount of nicotine in them. We thought it was just like juice,” said Eveliz Fuentes, a sophomore at Lyme-Old Lyme High School.
Both the Lyme-Old Lyme Prevention Coalition and REACH have worked to reduce this awareness gap. At each presentation they emphasize that one pod used in a Juul or vape contains the same amount of nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes. Off-brand pods available at gas stations and convenience stores can contain THC, the primary active ingredient in marijuana.
“I have lots of friends who wish they’d never picked up a Juul. They’re shocked they got addicted,” said Masha Wallace, a sophomore at Lyme-Old Lyme High School. “There are lots of kids doing more than they want to admit.”
“Once students start noticing the side effects, like their athletic performance, that’s when they start taking what we are saying seriously,” said Kelly Walsh, a sophomore at Lyme-Old Lyme High School.
According to Barbara Walsh, the Tobacco Control Program Supervisor for Connecticut’s Department of Public Health, her department is working collaboratively with the State Department of Education to provide information and resources about the harmful effects of vaping to school districts.
“There are a few youth intervention programs remaining,” Walsh said. But unfortunately, “they were initially funded through tobacco and health trust funds but that funding has now ended.”
Today, just over a year after the first community forum focused on vaping, Lyme-Old Lyme schools have strict policies for those caught vaping in school. Students are given in-school suspension, must sit out of sports games and participate in an educational intervention with the LYSB.
As part of the intervention, Seidner explains the harms of vaping, the chemicals – just as many as are in cigarettes – that are entering the body and the effect of “thirdhand” exposure on animals and small children using the same living space. She also puts the expense of juuling into terms a teenager might better understand.
“I have them calculate how much they spend on juul pods in a year,” Seidner said, “and many of them realize if they hadn’t been buying pods every week they likely would already have saved up enough money for a car.”
Last spring, Seidner said she was getting called in for several educational interventions each week at Lyme-Old Lyme High School.
Nationally, several organizations are putting pressure on companies like Juul to stop marketing and selling to teenagers. After pressure from the FDA, Juul Labs, Inc. announced in the fall of 2018 that the company will stop selling flavors like mango and cucumber.
“People thought our generation would get rid of tobacco,” Thompson said. “Not anymore, and that’s sad.”