TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley school districts and health officials are pushing for more education for teenagers and their parents about the dangers of vaping.
Across the region, electronic cigarette use is the No. 1 cause of school suspensions, said Cody Orchard, health education specialist for South Central Public Health District. And nationwide, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched an anti-vaping campaign in September targeting teenagers.
Idaho law says it’s illegal for a minor — anyone younger than 18 — to be in possession of or use tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Those who are caught receive an infraction.
Education and health officials say there’s a perception among some teens e-cigarettes are safe and there’s nothing wrong with them. But beyond legal and school consequences, vaping can cause health issues, including heart and lung problems.
“What we’re seeing as far as education is there’s not a whole lot of parents who know anything about these — whether they’re safe or dangerous,” Orchard said.
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South Central Public Health District is working with school districts to educate students, parents and teachers about e-cigarettes.
The district recently held a presentation before a parent-teacher conference at Filer High School. Orchard was also at Canyon Ridge High School from 4 to 8 p.m. Oct. 24 during parent-teacher conferences.
Orchard said he’s working with the Twin Falls School District and Cassia County School District to arrange more educational opportunities.
There’s not a lot of education in Twin Falls schools at this point about vaping, Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Eva Craner said. “It’s obvious we need to do more.”
With the design of e-cigarettes, they can be difficult to detect or may be mistaken for something else, such as a flash drive for a computer.
A parent may see an e-cigarette in their child’s room, but not know what it is, Orchard said. “We want to do education programs with parents and teachers to fill them in on the dangers these potentially have.”
The issue with e-cigarettes is so widespread and new, school officials are still figuring out appropriate consequences, Craner said.
Of the 60 Twin Falls School District students suspended in September, 14 were a result of smoking. Of those, three are middle schoolers and the rest are high schoolers.
That’s according to a monthly long-term suspension report the school board receives. The report doesn’t specify whether the students were smoking an e-cigarette or something else.
In Cassia County, the school district plans to launch an anti-vaping campaign soon, district spokeswoman Debbie Critchfield said. The district plans to partner with outside community groups as part of the effort.
Vaping, Critchfield said, is the No. 1 cause of suspensions in the school district.
Twin Falls school resource officer Morgan Waite saw a lot of students vaping last school year while he was stationed at Magic Valley High School, but also encountered students who were smoking traditional cigarettes.
This year as Canyon Ridge High School’s SRO, the smoking cases he encounters are entirely vaping.
It’s not just a high school problem either. This summer, Waite worked while summer school was underway at South Hills Middle School and some students were caught vaping in class.
Waite is also seeing an uptick in students using e-cigarettes to smoke marijuana. The difficult thing for school resource officers, he said, is there isn’t an odor when marijuana is used in an e-cigarette.
Overall, there’s a common misconception among teenagers e-cigarettes are safe and there’s nothing is wrong with them, Orchard said. “There is a misunderstanding that just because they’re a technology device they’re safe.”
For some teenagers, they’re a cool, fun-looking device, Orchard said, and there’s a mentality that “all of my friends are doing it.” Also, with some devices, “it kind of ties in with their cellphone a little bit.”
Stores are generally doing a good job of not selling e-cigarettes to minors, Waite said, adding that most students are getting them from friends or adults.
Cecilia Marzitelli, manager at Exhale Vapors in Twin Falls, said if someone comes into the store who looks younger than 27, an employee checks their identification at the door and kicks them out right away if they’re a minor.
It’s not worth it for an employee to jeopardize their job, Marzitelli said.
She said the store is really good about ensuring minors aren’t coming in. Also, employees can often tell when people come in who aren’t regular customers.
“Some kids will try to come in and see if they can get away with it,” she said.
Marzitelli said the shop is slowing down on the sale of JUUL e-cigarettes, which have been trendy among teenagers.
Oftentimes, a teenager trying to get an e-cigarette will send an adult — often someone who’s barely 18 or older — into a store to buy for them, Marzitelli said. “Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about underage buying unless you physically catch them.”
If Marzitelli suspects a customer is clearly buying for someone underage — such as if they’re buying something they normally don’t — she says something. But customers are usually good at being discreet, she said.
“If I can tell they’re buying for someone underage, I call them out on it,” she said. “I can tell it kind of scares them.”
Marzitelli said she has seen older people — who are likely relatives of a minor — come into the store and they don’t know anything about what they’re buying.
It’s annoying and frustrating, she said. “It’s really sad. It makes me really upset sometimes.”
School and legal consequences
At Canyon Ridge High, there are more and more cases of students vaping, Waite said. The school’s security aide is on the hunt for them and often catches students vaping in the bleachers or bathrooms.
If a student at Canyon Ridge is suspected of having an e-cigarette, school administrators can have Waite search the student or their property. On top of a law enforcement punishment, consequences of a minor getting caught with at school with an e-cigarette often include a suspension.
For distribution — a minor giving an e-cigarette to a peer — it’s a misdemeanor for the second or subsequent offenses.
Some parents believe it’s OK if their child has nicotine-free juice for an e-cigarette, Waite said, but it still illegal for a minor to possess an e-cigarette.
If a high schooler is 18 years old, they won’t receive any legal consequences, but will still get punished by their school.
One nicotine cartridge for a JUUL e-cigarette is about equivalent to a pack of cigarettes. It’s common to see students go through one or two cartridges a day, Orchard said.
Another danger of e-cigarettes: Children are more likely to start smoking regular cigarettes if they’re vaping, Waite said. Most people believe e-cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes, “but safer doesn’t mean safe.”
The substance used in e-cigarettes often contains vegetable glycerin, Orchard said, adding it’s known to cause heart and lung issues.
E-cigarettes can cause a condition known as “wet lung,” Orchard said, which is scientifically known as hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a disease where the lungs become irritated from breathing in allergens and chemicals. “Chemicals are being inhaled really deeply into the lungs and (are) not being allowed to escape.”
There’s also a dependence issue with e-cigarettes, Orchard said. “Kids aren’t able to put them down. They might not realize how many times they puff on it.”
Orchard said many teenagers have told him they use their e-cigarette at home while studying. “They might go through a whole pod just reading their book not realizing it.”
Teenagers who become addicted are trying to figure out ways to get out of class to vape in hallways or bathrooms, Orchard said. That has academic consequences.
Plus, nicotine leads to the release of dopamine, giving teenagers a strong buzz and leaving them feeling really good, Orchard said. But over time, their bodies adjust and teenagers start smoking more because they can’t get that same feeling anymore.
School and health officials are pushing to educate students and parents about recognizing when a child has an e-cigarette and how to combat the problem. But as a relatively new phenomenon, reversing a trend could take time.
*Note: This story was edited online Monday to correct the date Cody Orchard will be at Canyon Ridge High School during parent-teacher conferences.