In response to the dramatic increase in teen vaping, and the recent deaths of two people in the South Valley, the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) hosted a forum to educate the community about what it considers an epidemic.
Frank Escobar, director of student services for VUSD, moderated the forum last night at the El Diamante High School theater. He said that VUSD is getting much more aggressive in meeting the challenges of teen vaping. The school district is forming a vaping task force, conducting staff and parent training and conducting five more educational forums throughout the year.
In addition, VUSD will launch a series of assemblies this spring for every student fifth grade and up about the dangerous health effects of vaping.
“That’s 30,000 students and a heck of a feat, but it is our intention to do this annually,” said Escobar.
The forum was hosted by VUSD in conjunction with the California Health Collaborative, Visalia Police Department and the Tulare County Office of Education.
May Chung, from the California Health Collaborative, started the forum with a presentation educating parents on the quickly changing marketing techniques employed by the tobacco industry.
Chung said that three million teens, or 20%, vape, and the reason for the recent increase is because of the flavors. There are 15,000 different flavors such as unicorn poop and dragon’s blood that draw teens to try vaping.
“You name it they have it,” she said.
The question of why teens would vape when they understand the adverse health effects were outlined. The most common reason was that someone close to them uses e-cigarettes seemingly without consequence, and that made it OK in the teens’ mind. The next biggest factor is the flavors, followed by the fact teens think vaping is less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
According to one panel member, teen use has increased 20-25% during the past year alone. The more people who vape, the more it is accepted, and an entire culture starts building around it, said Chung.
Another misconception is that vaping only consists of vapor. Chung said that the “vapor” is actually a mixture of chemicals or aerosol similar to hairspray that the smoker is inhaling into their lungs. Also, a sticky residue is produced when the aerosol is exhaled by the smoker.
Teens also do not understand the large amount of nicotine present in e-cigarettes. Even if the package says 0% nicotine, Chung said that when you read the small print there is nicotine. A normal vaping pod can have the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes and some teens have reported vaping two pods a day.
E-cigarettes come in forms that many parents may not recognize, she said. An e-cigarette may come in the form of a flash drive, marker, or a pen that actually writes. Chung added that a new model of e-cigarette is in the form of an apple watch that tells time but also flips open allowing the teen to vape.
Because vaping is difficult to detect, students vape in parks, bathrooms, cars and even sticking their heads in their back packs pretending to be looking for something while actually vaping.
Also available to disguise vaping is a hoodie whose drawstring have been replaced by a tube that connects to an e-cigarette in the teen’s pocket. If the teen cannot afford to buy the specialized hoodie there are youtube tutorials on how to make their own.
No one under 21 years old is legally able to buy tobacco products, but teens can easily get them from friends, parents, stores or at school, said Chung. The easiest place for a teen to buy tobacco products is on-line as there are no age controls.
Chung said that in Visalia there are 100 stores that sell tobacco products. She showed a map illustrating how the stores were clustered around Visalia’s schools and low-income communities. Thirty-three of the stores were only three blocks away from a school.
What parents should be looking for, says Chung, are unfamiliar objects in their children’s backpacks and a sweet or fruity smell. Parents should also look out for changes in their kids behavior such as headaches, anxiety, nausea, and mood swings which are the short-term health effects of vaping.
Sergeant Jason Logue, the campus officer for Ridgeview Middle School, implored the parents not to be embarrassed to look through their kids back packs.
“If you need to pat them down before they go to school so be it. Be a parent, don’t be a friend,” he said.
After the presentation the 100 or so attendees were invited to ask questions.
The first question inquired if sensors could be installed in the school bathrooms to combat students vaping on campus. Escobar said that his research showed that sensors cost about $5000 each but that he had recently seen some for $1000. It was possible, he said, that as the price came down schools could use recently approved grant money to purchase sensors. Escobar wanted to first make sure the sensors were effective by asking other school districts who had installed them if they worked.
Logue said that the sensors serve two purposes: to detect vaping and noise in the case a fight breaks out in the bathrooms. The sensors he has researched would send a text to the school administrator’s phone alerting them that something was happening in the bathroom. He said Ridgeview has 8 bathrooms so that would be an investment of $8000.
Another question concerned how to report retailers who are selling to underage customers. Sergeant Bill Diltz told the audience to give him a call or leave a message at 713-4726 and he will take down the information and make sure that the retailer is at the top of the list for the next sting operation. Diltz said that the Visalia Police Department recently received a grant to target retailers selling to underage customers.
A parent wanted to know if there were testing kits available to confirm if their child was vaping. Logue said that there was a kit marketed to police departments but that anyone could buy one online. He said the kit had a test strip that could be run across backpacks, brownies and gummy bears to check for pot or nicotine.
Another parent volunteered the information that kits were also sold at Walgreens. The customer mails in the swabs and gets the results in about two days.
The enduring question is what can parents and communities do to combat teen vaping. Chung said that ultimately Visalia needs to create a tobacco license similar to a liquor license. Not only will the city be able to control the number of tobacco retailers, but the license fee can be used to maintain funding for the police to conduct sting operations and code enforcement.
“If cites and jurisdictions don’t do something about vaping, use will grow,’ said Logue.