Teens are finding themselves sent to school offices for a new offense: using electronic cigarettes.
The East Meadow School District is facing the challenge of keeping e-cigarettes out of classrooms. In April, Superintendent Kenneth Card released a letter expressing the district’s concerns about student use of these products on school grounds.
“Vaping, in addition to smoking, is a violation of our Code of Conduct, and students caught vaping on school property are subject to discipline,” the letter stated. “The rise of detentions and suspensions as a result of this trend is troubling, as schools are losing valuable classroom time.”
Electronic cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control, heat up a liquid that contains nicotine, and flavoring made from liquid glycerin, to create an inhalable vapor. The devices are often used by smokers to help them quit cigarettes.
Many people, however, have turned to electronic cigarettes for the appeal of the flavors. A 2016 report from the U.S. surgeon general, titled, “E-Cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults,” found that the flavors in e-cigarettes are one of the main reasons teens use them.
Another concern among school administrators is that students can hide e-cigarettes and vape pens, because some are palm-sized and the smell is disguisable. Juul, a popular brand of e-cigarette produced by Juul Labs, sells vape pens that resemble flash drives.
To keep electronic cigarettes out of the hands of young people, County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat from Baldwin, signed legislation last week that bans the sale of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes for anyone under age 21.
“There has been a significant increase in vaping among young people, and it is becoming a bigger problem in our schools,” said County Legislator Thomas McKevitt, a Republican from East Meadow. “One of the things that’s most concerning is that administrators don’t know what substance the students are vaping. It’s important that we try to reduce vaping among teenagers as much as possible.”
Juul Labs has taken a stance against the use of its products by minors. To purchase them online, customers must verify their age through a second party. On April 25, the company announced that it would donate $30 million to prevent underage e-cigarette use through education and research.
“We want to provide the one billion smokers a true alternative to combustible cigarettes,” Juul Labs spokeswoman Victoria Davis said. “Juul is for current adult smokers only. We cannot be more emphatic on this point: No young person or non-nicotine user should ever try Juul.”
According to the 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey released by the Centers for Disease Control, 11.3 percent of high school students and 4.3 percent of middle school students use electronic cigarettes.
Traditional cigarettes have become less popular, however, with only 2.2 percent of middle school students and 8 percent of high school students smoking them.
Almost a half-million deaths are caused by cigarette smoking every year because of the thousands of chemicals burned and inhaled in the smoke, according to the CDC.
The agency also states that e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes because they contain fewer toxins than the 7,000 that are found in cigarettes.
A 2015 expert review from Public Health England, an agency of the United Kingdom Department of Health and Social Care, estimated that electronic cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
David Diaz, who works at Stratus Vapor Lounge in Carle Place, argued that electronic cigarettes are a better alternative, especially since some liquids contain little to no nicotine. “If I had an option of my child either picking up a cigarette or an e-cig, I would rather my child pick up an e-cigarette than actually having to bring the whole cigarette to the house,” Diaz said. “That’s worse.”
It is clear, however, that electronic cigarettes are far from harmless. According to a 2015 New England Journal of Medicine article, formaldehyde is a byproduct of e-cigarette combustion. The National Cancer Institute states that formaldehyde is a “probable human carcinogen,” meaning that it is likely to cause cancer.
The Truth Initiative, a nationwide anti-tobacco campaign, has expressed concerns about the nicotine in e-cigarettes. According to its research, 63 percent of young people are unaware of the fact that Juul liquids always contain nicotine.
Dave Dobbins, the campaign’s chief operating officer, said he believes that if more young people knew about the nicotine, they would make a better choice. “If a kid realizes that they are taking a drug that’s going to make them addicted, for the most part they are not interested in doing that,” Dobbins said. “If we make sure kids know what’s in it, they’ll make better decisions.”
Ling Huang, an East Meadow resident and a chemistry professor at Hofstra University, has been studying electronic cigarettes with his students since 2015. They have conducted a series of experiments to determine what happens to the liquid in an electronic cigarette when it heats up. Keegan Rogers, one of Huang’s former students, found that the glycerin in an e-cigarette, when heated to around 250 degrees Fahrenheit, produces small amounts of cancer-causing aldehydes.
Some electronic cigarettes, however, including those produced by Juul, only heat up to roughly 210 degrees Fahrenheit. Sahara Caravan, of Malverne, who recently finished her freshman year at Hofstra, is currently working with Huang to test these liquids and determine whether they produce the same potentially harmful chemicals. Her study is not yet completed.
Huang said he hoped he could use his and his students’ findings to offer useful advice on the dangers of vaping and, perhaps, help e-cigarette companies create safer products. Parents and high school administrators are growing increasingly worried about the use of the devices, Huang said, but “I think the students should be educated as to why it might be dangerous.”
Brian Stieglitz contributed to this story.