VAN HORNE — In class, 16-year-old Anna Thiher has seen students sneak a Juul — a popular nicotine vaping device — out of a sweatshirt, inhale and discreetly exhale the vapor down the neck of their clothing.
She and other students at Benton Community School District’s combined middle and high school said they’ve seen use of vape pens — known as vaping — explode among their classmates this school year.
“We’ve never had problems with it until this year,” said senior Madison Wille, 17.
“I didn’t even know what it was before this year,” added Lauren Price, 18.
While cigarette use among high school students is declining, e-cigarette use has surged. More than 20 percent of students indicated they frequently vaped in 2018, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Federal Drug Administration.
Several Benton High students organized an anti-tobacco event at the school in Van Horne on Wednesday as part of an annual day of activism sponsored by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Students signed a pledge asking the federal government to ban flavored tobacco products — Juul pod flavors include mango, creme and mint.
The uptick in teenagers using the products last year was “a sharp and startling reversal of overall declines in youth tobacco use,” according to the FDA.
Benton High School Principal James Bieschke said students found with tobacco products are suspended for two days. Although many e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, they are regulated as tobacco products.
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“We really try to work hard to educate kids on Juul and vaping,” Bieschke said. “The marketing for these products gives the impression it’s not harmful and it’s not going to hurt them, but there are severe (health) consequences.”
Cedar Rapids police officer Charity Hansel said students — and their parents — often don’t understand the risks of e-cigarettes, which can contain as much as four times the amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, according to the FDA.
“Realistically, even if you didn’t understand the nicotine was there, there’s chemicals in that thing,” Hansel said. “Any foreign substance you take into your lungs should be turning on a light bulb for folks and saying, ‘If I’m taking a foreign substance into my lungs, it’s probably not going to be healthy down the road.’”
As a school resource officer at Kennedy High School, Hansel said she has issued more citations this school year for vaping — a $50 fine for first-time offenders — than ever before.
Arrest records show 42 arrests have been made at Cedar Rapids Community School District high schools this year for an alcohol or drug offense compared to just 16 last school year. At Kennedy, there have been 17 since August.
“We all know it’s a really big jump,” Kennedy Principal Jason Kline said. “We’ve had a huge increase of kids doing it inside the building.”
Possession of tobacco under the legal age is a civil infraction, and receiving one does not leave students with a criminal record, Cedar Rapids Police spokesman Greg Buelow said.
Iowa legislators this session introduced a few bills that would tighten regulations on the sale or use of vaping products, but the legislation appears unlikely to advance.
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Most students found with vape pens in their backpacks or caught using them in the cafeteria seem nonchalant, Kline said. Oftentimes the information the students and their parents have about vaping is incomplete, he and Hansel said.
“It’s the exact same thing as the 1960s with tobacco, when you had the Marlboro man, and he was sexy and young and tough and all those things. The same agenda is being pushed,” Hansel said. “ ... Parents really need to get educated on this. Don’t be afraid to go through your son’s or daughter’s car or room or their bookbag. A lot of times, kids are hiding these in plain sight.”
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