By John Kalil and Demetri Leones, Managing Editor and Liaison Editor
// As a result of years of successful youth education and societal attitude shifts, a 2017 report by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that usage of cancer-causing traditional cigarettes by youths decreased by 45 percent from 2011.
In its smoky stead, however, entered the specter of a new vice for teens—electronic cigarettes. Companies like JUUL became enormously profitable as their fruity flavors and sleeker products fell into the impressionable hands of teens.
“We have had success in getting people to not get addicted to cigarettes, and then watched a company come back thirty years later and get young people vaping. It went in the other direction,” Congressman Mark Desaulnier of Contra Costa County told Blueprint.
Diffused with enticing flavors, such as creme brulee and mango, and undetectable by suspicious parents and teachers, vapes such as JUUL became incredibly popular among teens across America, particularly in Lamorinda. Whereas traditional cigarette usage plummeted amongst American teens, vape usage is still on the rise.
Nearly two years after a Blueprint investigation uncovered alarming details regarding the rise of JUUL at Acalanes, the chemical composition of these vapes, and a culture of substance abuse on campus, the problem appears even graver today.
The most recent Healthy Kids Survey in 2018 uncovered that electronic cigarette usage rates within the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) are the highest in the county, which prompted the district to apply for a Department of Justice (DOJ) grant to combat the epidemic.
In order to gain a greater perspective on student nicotine abuse, a cause of great concern by local adults, Blueprint interviewed three Acalanes students about their vaping habits.
Due to the illegality of their actions, Blueprint is withholding the identities of these surveyed students. They will be referred to as Student 1, Student 2, and Student 3.
On a local and national level, lawmakers are intent on preventing another generation from becoming hooked by big tobacco companies. However, many fear that these efforts may be too little, too late.
“I crave nicotine everyday. I find myself more irritable when I don’t get my morning headrush or daily dose of nicotine,” Student 3 said. “I realize it is bad for my health, but my addiction overrides my concerns.”
A Perilous Problem
While legislators suspect that flavors entice teenagers to begin vaping, it is clear that nicotine keeps vapers and traditional cigarette smokers hooked.
“Nicotine we know is possibly the most addictive substance ever. Arguably, it could be equal with heroin, but it is not very far behind if it’s not equal,” Acalanes School Nurse Dvora Citron said.
The dopamine surges linked to vaping nicotine seem to be the driving factor for AUHSD students taking part in the electronic cigarette epidemic.
And unlike traditional cigarettes, using vapes such as JUUL allow for more streamlined access to nicotine.
“What do you have to do to smoke a cigarette? You have to get the package out, you have to take it out, you have to light a cigarette,” Citron said. “It’s very intentional and definite and so contrast that to how insidious vaping use would be. You are almost using without even thinking about it. The only way you can keep track is how often you change that pod.”
The answer to why so many young people are hooked on vaping is fairly nuanced.
“The industry really pushed that this is a safe alternative to combustible tobacco use even though there is not a lot of evidence that backs up that claim, so I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there among young people and adults around what these products do,” Emily Justice, manager at the Contra Costa County Office of Education, said.
Additionally, there is little to no knowledge of the long term effects of vaping, which prevents vapers from citing any damage to their health from vaping. Cigarettes, in contrast, have been extensively studied and are notorious for their severe health implications.
“When I talk to young people, 99.9 percent of people are like, ‘Yeah, cigarette smoking is bad for people’s health. There’s no way I would do it.’ But then with vaping it’s like, ‘Oh, well that’s different. It’s not tobacco,’ even though in California it’s classified as a tobacco product,” Justice said.
In order to gain greater insight into student nicotine abuse, a cause of great concern for many local adults, Blueprint further investigated the stories of two individual students.
Student 1, who began using nicotine devices sophomore year, reports craving these vaping devices daily.
“I never had an urge to vape until a couple months ago and I now have the urge to vape on occasion, maybe once or twice a day,” Student 1 said, adding that they have not allowed vaping to damage their normal routine.
Student 2 felt less at ease with their vaping usage, which became alarming after starting during their sophomore year.
“Around summertime junior year I realized that I was genuinely starting to crave it. I would notice my gaze locking onto the device as it was being passed around, I would invite myself into conversations just to acquire nicotine,” Student 2 said.
Recognizing the unhealthiness of these cravings, Student 2 decided to make a change in their vaping habits.
“I decided that it was unacceptable for me to give up so much control of my own mind to such a silly and toxic product like a JUUL or a Puff,” Student 2 said, referencing the product Puff which is very similar in style and function to a JUUL.
Still, Student 2 admitted that the path towards quitting nicotine is a difficult row to hoe.
“Within my friend group it seems like, they do it, and they want to quit, but they won’t. Often times you can tell that they are unable to admit to themselves that they have a problem,” Student 2 said.
Student 1, who still vapes, also expressed that it would be quite difficult to quit if they wanted.
“I think about quitting a lot, but I’m not sure if that’s what I want to do yet,” Student 1 said. “Honestly, I would need a bit of help quitting. I could prevent myself from buying any vapes but I would need people around me to not share if I ask to use theirs.”
A Rapid Response
The 2018 Healthy Kids Survey in which 38 percent of Acalanes 11th graders admitting to having used electronic cigarettes, with 25 percent using currently merely confirmed what site and district administration already knew.
“I think the problem is that it’s such an epidemic that we’re not making much of a dent,” Associate Superintendent Amy McNamara said.
Despite how stealthy a scentless vape may seem to a student, Acalanes staff encounters students with vapes often.
And yet, Acalanes administrators report apprehending fewer students with vapes on campus this year.
“I will say it’s been less this year. If you were to look back at how many we had year at this time, we do have less this year,” associate principal Andrea Powers said, attributing the decrease to stricter policies regarding student access to the parking lot. Powers also believes that students could merely be leaving their vapes at home.
Still, the AUHSD estimates that across the four schools, administrators have confiscated over a thousand illegally obtained vaping devices from students.
“We have thousands of vaping devices–literally–between the four schools, well over a thousand right now. We’re kind of like ‘what do we do with all these vaping devices?’ It’s actually kind of funny,” McNamara said.
And yet, the disciplinary practices available to the school remain limited due to restrictive state laws that shield students from harsh punishments for tobacco usage.
While administration may suspend a student on the first offense for any marijuana-related incident, being caught with a nicotine electronic cigarette can only yield a suspension for a student on their third infraction.
When a student is found with electronic cigarettes, the official policy is to have administrators confiscate the device, call the student’s parents, and schedule both a detention and intervention for the student. The punishment for the second infraction is essentially the same.
Students may opt into counseling sessions offered by the Wellness Center to discuss the substance abuse that prompted the disciplinary action.
“The goal of it isn’t to convince students to stop vaping or to make any change whatsoever. The goal of it is actually to get students to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, what their motivations are behind it,” Allen Choi, Wellness Coordinator at Acalanes, said.
In a process that Choi calls “Motivational Interviewing”, trained therapists at the Wellness Center talk to students in two to three-day sessions.
They attempt to get students to understand their decisions for vaping, whether to cope with stress or use in social activity. In the end, they hope for students to make the decision to quit vaping when they are ready rather than forcing an abrupt stop.
“People typically change when they’re at a point when they’re ready to change… So pushing for change really won’t do much; it’s really about gathering information so that when you are ready, you can make the change,” Choi said.
The next step would be to determine the best route for an individual student to take for the future–whether it is quitting “cold turkey” or participating in harm reduction, which involves reducing the amount of use over time.
Most students who go through this process come through the disciplinary track rather than voluntarily. This may be due to a lack of concern that students have over their nicotine addictions, or due to apprehension towards revealing their addiction to school administrators.
When the AUHSD combatted the cigarette smoking crisis over a decade ago, staff like Citron ran cessation groups.
These were a combination of informational sessions on the effects of tobacco and nicotine on the body, along with “a support group that integrated cognitive-behavioral strategies and had an actual plan students could follow to quit: a quit plan,” Citron said.
These sessions were more group-oriented, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) programs, and lasted for about six weeks. After cigarette use decreased among youth, however, the district slowly scaled back these programs. Then vaping began to spread and spiraled into the problem it remains today.
In order to make a dent in the vaping epidemic, McNamara filed a Department of Justice (DOJ) grant application to a fund operated out of tax revenue from the sale of tobacco and vapes.
“We’ve got to start locally because we can’t wait for the federal government. We’ve got to start with local ordinances that ban the sale. We’ve got to put JUUL out of business in the Bay Area so no city will sell their products,” McNamara said.
The application requested money to place vapor detectors in the bathrooms and security cameras around campus and to hire a counselor to deal solely with cessation.
Vapor detectors would send a text message to administrators, who could then head to the bathroom or locker room to investigate. This formal system would replace a more informal process of monitoring the bathrooms.
“We try to encourage staff as they walk the halls just to pop in. We work on protocols with the administrative team and Campus Supervisor Andy Macdonald on getting into all the bathrooms on a regular basis,” Acalanes principal Travis Bell said.
Despite the grant’s denial by the DOJ, as a record number of schools applied from all across the country, the AUHSD still plans to implement parts of the plan–even without funding from the federal government–that are more focused on intervention.
McNamara believes that the grant, which was sent to an enforcement agency, may have been denied because the grant application focused more on health and wellness than enforcement in conjunction with the Lafayette Police Department.
Already planning to reapply for the grant next year, McNamara sees the district’s push as a plan to create a healthier student body, not a crackdown on illicit activity.
“I feel like it’s a health issue. We have to tackle it from the health aspect and provide a lot of information to our kids,” McNamara said.
A Federal Fix
On a wider scale, adults, administrators, and politicians all over California have become aware of the vaping’s hold on teens in the Golden State.
An ordinance passed by the Lafayette City Council in May and signed by Mayor Mike Anderson banned the sale of flavored tobacco products in Lafayette, citing the alluring nature of fruity flavors to minors.
“The momentum for this effort really came from a concern about youth who were beginning to use flavored products that wouldn’t necessarily be appealing to older folks, and that is bringing people who wouldn’t normally try tobacco into that market and getting them hooked to nicotine,” Mayor Anderson told Blueprint.
Ordinance 675 essentially outlawed the sale of most if not all electronic cigarettes, including the ubiquitous brand JUUL which before offered flavors like mango and creme brulee.
This new regulation forced Lafayette’s Blazin Jayz Smoke Shop out of business at the beginning of October, as the owner Adam Abdallah reported to KCBS Radio that 85 percent of his products were flavored tobacco.
The opening of Blazin Jayz in early 2018 caused controversy over its location right next to Learning Express Toys, a children’s toy store.
On a federal level, legislators have called for extensive punishment and regulation of JUUL, specifically for marketing its products towards minors and sparking a vaping crisis through the U.S.
In September, the Trump administration announced a ban on flavored tobacco products, which represent a majority of JUUL’s sales, before reversing the decision in mid-November. Nevertheless, JUUL accepted this action, removing these products from its website, whereas before it had only ceased selling such products in brick and mortar locations.
In contrast to the promising steps made by the company in recent months, various media outlets have uncovered numerous instances of JUUL marketing directly to teens in schools. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also accused the company of falsely and illegally advertising its vapes.
A member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, Desaulnier grilled JUUL co-founder James Monsees in a hearing in July.
“I just said you’re nothing but a marketer of poison. And your target market is America’s children,” Desaulnier told Blueprint.
Building off of the White House’s advance against the proliferation of flavored tobacco on Nov. 6th, Desaulnier introduced the Preventing Vape Use Act to halt the sale of e-cigarettes nationwide until the FDA can fully review and approve the safety claims made by manufacturers such as JUUL.
“Until the FDA proves without a doubt that it is not unsafe, there should be a federal prohibition on e-cigarettes,” Desaulnier told Blueprint.
Indeed, adults all over the country and within the AUHSD are hoping to turn vaping into another success story of public policy and education, eradicating vaping in the same manner as electronic cigarettes.
Bell emphasized this objective, fearing the implications that the vaping epidemic will bring to high schoolers at Acalanes and throughout the rest of the country.
“What’s really sad to me is that this generation of high schoolers will be the test subjects: in 20 years, they’re going to be the ones that will now be the case studies that will be used for future high school students on the long term effects of vape use,” Bell said.
Staff Writers Shrida Pandey and Stella Heo contributed to this report.