Vaping blankets nation, Bay Area in cloud of concern

Nov 7, 2019 | Features


he printer in Dean of Student Life Hillary F.’s office works overtime as Hillary stands by, hand outstretched to catch article after article, headline after headline. Each blares the same topic in bold font: the adolescent vaping crisis.

“This is the last one,” she says, setting down the thick stack of papers with a thud. “As you can see, I keep up with [vaping], try to read about it and find out what’s going on—and of course, the news media is talking about it all the time now.”

Hillary is referring to vaping’s domination of the news cycle since September, when six vaping-related deaths were reported by mainstream news. 

To date, the CDC has confirmed 35 vaping-related fatalities.

These reports have directed national attention to the previously unresearched field of vaping as well as recent, disturbing revelations—unvetted products, rampant black market activity, and, perhaps most worryingly, accelerated adolescent use.

When The Nueva Current first published its 2018 article on vaping, the percentage of American high school students who vaped was a little more than 11%, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse—a number already jarringly high—and was noted to be rising. Eighteen months later, the percentage is now over 20%, according to a national study by the University of Michigan. The industry has grown from $11.5 billion in 2018 to $19.3 billion today, compared to $4.6 billion between 2014 and 2018.

This data has prompted U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams to proclaim vaping an “epidemic” among youth populations.

I’m concerned about teenagers and vaping, but I actually have zero evidence of vaping at [our] school. I have not smelled it; I’ve not seen any smoke. None of that.

Hillary F.

Dean of Student Life

But while the FDA and a number of NGOs have launched highly funded, expansive campaigns to combat adolescent use, vaping has continued to rise and shows no signs of slowing.

One of the epicenters is the Bay Area, which is home to pockets of vast wealth, technology, and Juul—an e-cigarette company founded by Stanford grads whose retail revenue currently accounts for  40% of the entire vaping market. Juuling’s popularity has led it to become synonymous with vaping.

Around the Bay, school districts have reported rampant e-cig use. In attempts to curb use, San Francisco recently enacted a city-wide ban of e-cigarette sales, the country’s first, which will go into effect in early 2020, and some schools have installed vapor-detecting devices in bathrooms.

The reality of the situation, however, remains that while the potency of these advertising and legal efforts are unknown, the youth of the Bay Area are continuing to use.

At Nueva, the presence of vaping is not as apparent.

But while the administration hasn’t seen reports of students vaping, she believes “statistics would confirm” that some have tried it or even are using. 

“I’m not saying I don’t think that there could be, but it has not gotten to me,” Hillary said.

Several students agreed that vaping at Nueva is not nearly as common as in other high schools in the area, and seemed to be “an exception,” as one junior put it.

We’re still definitely better than the other schools—than all the schools, but I think it’s still a problem.

Nueva Senior

The students all separately self-reported that a portion of all grades engage in vaping use.

“I don’t have in-depth conversations with any of these people about juuling, but if I had to go for an estimate,” said one student, “I’d say at least 10 to 20 people in our grade vape. ”

Another student also said they “knew more than a handful” of users in their grade, mostly from Snapchat and other social media platforms, on which students post videos of parties with vape use.

Ananya I. ’21 says she doesn’t vape; however, she says she knows a “significant amount” of people who do, some at Nueva and some outside.

“I have friends who don’t [regularly] vape because they don’t consider themselves users or don’t want to become addicted, but they don’t mind doing it,” she said. “They’re not necessarily married to their Juul…but there are a lot of people who will vape when their friends are.”

Currently, Nueva takes precautions to prevent and mitigate the harm of vaping primarily through drug education, which is taught to both middle and upper school students.

This year, the school is partnering with Rhana Hashemi and Frances Fu, co-founders of the Center for a Political Drug Education, which educates communities on the effects of the war on drugs through political and storytelling lenses.

People often have justifications for why it’s okay for them personally to keep vaping.

Ananya I. '21

Along with that, Hashemi says, the program focuses on understanding the situations of those who do use and providing information rather than scare tactics.

“Our program is very progressive in that it’s not trying to influence your behavior. We’re here to empower you to make the best choice for yourself,” Hashemi explained. “In order to make an informed decision [and] be safe with using, you have to be compassionate about the benefits and cautious with harm.”

One reason why this approach is so important, she says, is its rarity among high-profile, national anti-vaping campaigns. While they have generally gotten more “tasteful,” as she put it, some have stayed in more old-school routes like The Real Cost, which she says can be “really stigmatizing” towards youth who do use, pushing them further from help.

“Students who use should not see their identity portrayed by the government as this morphed mutant, almost a deformed creature,” Hashemi said, referring to a few particularly graphic ads. “That creates this polarization that only marginalizes them more.”

According to the students, these campaigns factor very little into the decision to vape or quit.

“I think vaping is such a peer influence thing,” Ana said. “The campaigns are doing a good job with trying to target us on Instagram and Snapchat, [but] these things are sometimes perceived as a little bit cringey.”

For the people Ana knows who are trying to quit, other factors—like general health risks and availability given the ban—are more influential.

There’s definitely this denial thing; [people think] that this isn’t going to happen to them. I think it’s easy for people to rationalize serious things like death, coma, and all the chemical stuff. People think it’s reasonable that it won’t happen to them.

Matthew R. '22

Hashemi says that this kind of thinking isn’t supported by evidence, and could be damaging.

“You never know that you have a problem. We are constantly being influenced, no matter whether we’re eating sugar, or drinking coffee, or smoking weed every single day. Just because we’re not aware that changes are happening does not mean that they aren’t, and it’s better to approach this with a sense of caution,” she explained. “You have to respect the power of substances. They have the ability to regulate and shift our entire neurochemistry. We’re giving up control when we use—and it’s okay to give up a little bit of control. But it’s also important to stay safe, which means recognizing there are also harms involved.”

For those concerned about themselves or a friend being addicted, Hashemi says thatthere are a couple different ways they can get help, 

like tolerance breaks or substituting another object to trick your brain. 

But one of the biggest aids for creating safer vape engagement, Hashemi stressed, is having a supportive community. She offers herself as one of these people to talk to, should anyone be concerned about their own or others’ vape use.

“I have an open door policy. I’m just here to provide honest information, not judge you, and connect you to the support you need. If you are using, I’m in a position to provide you with information and strategies for reducing harm, as someone who has had experiences with most drugs out there with personal use,” she said. “I’m not coming out and presenting those tools for the general public, because then it’s misinterpreted as promoting drug use, but if you are already using drugs, I just want you to be safe and supported.”