The age to purchase tobacco in Ulster County was raised to 21 last week, but buying packs of cigarettes is hardly the thing on kids’ minds these days. Vaping or “Juuling” — after the Juul, perhaps the most popular vaping device — is where it’s at.
In response to a school-wide vaping boon and a notice sent by the state health department to school administrations calling the practice an “epidemic,” the Saugerties PTSA, school administration, the school’s two health teachers and concerned parents met on the evening of Jan. 7 to learn more about the practice, pass around some vapes and talk about how the habit could be tackled both by parents at home and administrators during the school day.
“I call it the great equalizer — the ‘good’ kids, the ‘bad’ kids, they’re all doing it,” said Senior High Principal Tom Averill at the meeting. “It’s unhealthy, it’s taken over and it’s just another distraction.”
According to Averill, students caught vaping on school premises for the first time are given an in-school suspension, where they complete a computer module instructing them on the dangers of smoking e-cigarettes. A second offense incurs a two-day in-school suspension and a third gets the student suspended from school entirely. If the vaporizer in question delivers THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets one stoned, the suspension is immediate. Averill said that eight students this year had been removed from sports teams after vaping during practice; 19 have been penalized for vaping in the school’s locker rooms.
Meanwhile, Juul Labs, the San Francisco-based corporate forerunner in the e-cigarette game, recently handed out $2 billion in end-of-year bonuses to its employees across the globe. The money is rolling in, but critics and analysts across the board are now turning a sharper eye on the ways in which the Juul’s success may have been built on, if not targeted at, the backs and lungs of a new generation of young consumers.
“We’re having discussions and giving them facts,” said Averill. “We’re really trying to catch up to it.”
The time-honored practice of smoking in the bathrooms has been replaced with Juuling at Saugerties High, and administrators have responded by putting up anti-vaping signs in each of them. Some read “don’t be a guinea pig,” referring to the uncertainty surrounding vaping due to its short life on the market. Others list possible detriments that can be caused by vaping, like popcorn lung. A daily PSA about the dangers of vaping has been added to both schools’ morning announcement broadcasts.
Parents at the Monday meeting were taught about the parts of a vaping device — the battery, atomizer and cartridge containing liquid. Juul units, including a THC cartridge for a Juul device, were passed around and puzzled over. The misconception that e-cigarette aerosol is just water vapor was dispelled — they include propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, which have only been approved by the FDA for ingestion, not inhalation.
“They don’t get that it’s smoking on school property and they don’t understand that they’re addicted to something,” said Junior High principal Ginger Vail.
On a national level, the FDA has given the five companies that produce the lion’s share of vaping products to submit plans by March to curb the widespread use of their products by minors. New York City and 15 counties within the state, including Ulster, have risen the age to buy e-cigarettes and accessories to 21. The Saugerties High administration urges parents to discuss the issue at home with their children as they combat it on school grounds.
“I talked to my kids since they were very, very young, second or third grade, about how smoking and drugs are bad for you,” said one mother at the meeting, who had brought her two teen boys with her. “Tell them not to put any foreign substance in their lungs or body.”
“I think you’re facing as parents more things than you’ve ever faced. The only thing we can do is inform our kids and say ‘no,’” said Averill.
In response to this article, Juul sent us the following statement:
“JUUL Labs shares a common goal with the Surgeon General and other federal health regulators – preventing youth from initiating on nicotine. We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products. We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated. As we said before, our intent was never to have youth use JUUL products. We have taken dramatic action to contribute to solve this problem, which is why we implemented the JUUL Labs Action Plan to address underage use of JUUL products.
“We stopped the distribution of certain flavored JUULpods to retail stores as of November 17, 2018, strengthened the age verification of our industry leading site, eliminated our Facebook and Instagram accounts, and are developing new technology to further limit youth access and use. We are committed to working with the Surgeon General, FDA, state Attorneys General, local municipalities, and community organizations as a transparent and responsible partner in this effort.”
Also of note is this section of our Action Plan blog post, since it is the lede of the article:
“If implemented across the category, these actions will have the greatest impact in restricting access and ultimately decreasing underage use, along with 21+ laws on all tobacco products. On that point, JUUL Labs will not only continue to support Tobacco 21, we will actively pursue it by drafting legislation, funding advocacy campaigns, and engaging with lawmakers.”