Dangerous teen trend: JUULing at school

In Washington's most recent Healthy Youth Survey, one in five high school seniors said they vaped in the last month. Only about a third of sophomores said they thought vaping was dangerous. (Photo: KOMO News){ }

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- The Food and Drug Administration is now cracking down on a popular e-cigarette brand. And even if you haven't heard of JUUL, chances are any middle or high school student in your life knows exactly what it is. Teenagers are using them in school parking lots, bathrooms, even classrooms.

"It's the new high school thing. Everyone's got the JUUL," said Jordan Woods at Rain City Vape. Woods says he regularly kicks teens younger than 18 years old out of the store and confiscates fake ID's.

The makers of JUUL say it's supposed to help adults quit smoking. But teens are a driving force behind JUUL's popularity.

"It's incredibly prevalent in the schools," said Officer Jeff Borsheim of Bellevue Police. He's the school resource officer at Bellevue High School, but says vaping devices are showing up in middle schools, too.

Alex Edwards is a senior at Eastlake High School. "The first time I used the vape was right before 8th grade," he said. "The buzz was nice and it was immediately an attraction to do it again."

He's now 18 years old, legal to buy vaping products. But he says age isn't much of a factor. "Very popular. Every grade at my school," he said. "I'm a senior and all the freshmen, sophomore, junior, we all do 'em."

The JUUL first hit the market in 2015, and already accounts for more than half the e-cig sales in the country.

The look is a big part of the attraction. JUULs are slim, black devices that could pass for a flash drive.

"That's what people tell their teachers a lot, too," Edwards said. "If you charge it during class, they'll just say, it's my flash drive."

They're not just charging them in class. Some kids actually take hits in class, too. But it's hard to catch them in the act, because a JUUL doesn't produce a big vapor cloud.

"They'll just take a little hit or puff off them and then can hold the vapor in their mouth for a little while," Borsheim said. "There's minimal vapor. They'll also just blow into their sleeve or into their hoodie."

Teenagers are also attracted to the fruity flavors, which still pack a serious punch of nicotine. A single pre-filled JUUL pod is the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes.

Cathleen Leader is a counselor with Youth Eastside Services who works with students at Eastlake High. "Maybe most kids don't consider themselves addicted to nicotine, but especially with JUULs, the concentration is so high that it's a quick addiction," Leader said.

In Washington's most recent Healthy Youth Survey, one in five high school seniors said they vaped in the last month. Only about a third of sophomores said they thought vaping was dangerous.

But the kids themselves tell counselor Cathleen Leader, vaping is a gateway to other drugs, like marijuana. She wants parents to talk to their kids without judgement.

"If parents would open up these conversations and then just listen and not offer advice, I think that's probably the most important thing," Leader said.

Borsheim could write vaping teens a ticket at school, but he doesn't think that would help. Instead, kids are referred to counseling. "I'll talk to them. I'll say, do you actually know what you're consuming?" Borsheim said. "There really haven't been a lot of studies to truly determine what the health consequences are."

Edwards says vaping helped him give up cigarettes and other drugs. But he tries to educate others about the dangers of nicotine and says with just a month left of his senior year, you won't catch him taking a hit at school.

"I don't want to get suspended for something as stupid as vaping." he said.

The makers of JUUL insist they are not marketing to teenagers. A spokesperson told KOMO News, "we want to be a leader in seeking solutions. We are actively engaging with with, and listening to, lawmakers, community leaders and educators on how best to effectively keep young people away from JUUL." The company also supports raising the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21+.

After the FDA announced its nationwide crackdown on underage use, JUUL Labs CEO Kevin Burns said, “we are already seeing success in our efforts to enable adult smokers to transition away from cigarettes and believe our products have the potential over the long-term to contribute meaningfully to public health in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, we are committed to deterring young people, as well as adults who do not currently smoke, from using our products. We cannot be more emphatic on this point: No young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL.”

As for the flash drive design, the JUUL Labs spokesperson said, "as former smokers, JUUL Labs co-founders James Monsees and Adam Bowen designed JUUL to be as easy to use as a cigarette but not to look like one. We know adult smokers who want to switch do not want to be reminded of combustible cigarettes. JUUL's rectangular shape is a prime example of our intention to develop something different than a cigarette to help current adult smokers switch."

The consequences for vaping at school vary from district to district.

Leader said in the Lake Washington School District, students face an in-school suspension. They also undergo an assessment on their use, to determine if further treatment is needed. The student and family also receive education about nicotine addiction.

And many PTA groups are hosting presentations on teen use of vaping devices. Counselors and police often attend to share what they've learned about trends. Leader believes the best deterrent is making sure kids don't have too much free time combined with too much money, and that they have family involvement.

"To me, it's really important that we talk about it, that we educate kids and families and try to deter. Educating and involving families is the best approach," she said.

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