Superintendent warns youth about dangers of e-cigs
The alarm came in an Aug. 30 health advisory from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control— severe pulmonary disease has been associated with e-cigarettes. Swain Schools Superintendent Mark Sale took note, and then took action, making it the subject of his weekly video shared on social media.
The CDC sent out the advisory after one death and 215 possible cases. Since then, the CDC has announced three deaths and 450 cases of pulmonary disease since June, primarily in youth and young adults have a possible link to vaping. Plus an outbreak of lipoid pneumonia in North Carolina is linked to e-cigarettes, which was announced Sept. 6.
The symptoms of the patients with pulmonary disease have included shortness of breath, fatigue, fever and nausea or vomiting and all reported use of e-cigarettes in the past 90 days. Many also reported use of products containing tetrayhydrocannabinol products or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The CDC and Federal Drug Administration are currently investigating the outbreak.
Sale called this connection concerning, and the schools are doing their part to educate parents, guardians, teachers and students.
The e-cigarette industry is only about 10 years old and moderately regulated, which is a concern, Sale said, considering the nicotine content is often triple or quadruple of cigarettes.
“The biggest piece for me is to know what the devices can look like,” Sale said. “Often the ones that catch our eye are the big pieces, and they become very evident. I think we need to be aware that Juuls look like flash drives, and vapes are beginning to look like lighters or a memory card, and that’s becoming more difficult to identify. So, heighten your awareness and look at how it’s being handled. Watch their behavior, and if they’re gone for significant amounts of time then be alert; if they are putting their pen in their mouth a lot, be alert.”
Sale added his goal isn’t to trap students but to encourage parents and guardians to have a conversation with their children about electronic tobacco products. To that effort, the district will post a 4-page conversation starter on the school website at www.swain.k12.nc.us.
The use of traditional tobacco products among youth has been on the decline for years, but e-cigs are quickly filling the gap. Sale said it’s not just the announcement from the CDC that set off the alarm.
“The reason the concern has peaked is because of the amount of confiscation that is happening,” he said. Go to any assistant principal’s drawer of confiscated products, he said, and you’ll see 3 or 4 tobacco products like cigarettes and smokeless tobacco and double or triple that amount in e-cigs.
The CDC sites 50% of youth admit having tried an e-cig product and 25% admit to owning a Juul.
In the National Youth Tobacco Survey from 2017, an estimated 3 million high school students report use of tobacco products and 2.1 million use e-cigarettes. The most responded reasons they report use are “use by friend or family member” and “availability of flavors such as mint, candy, fruit or chocolate.”
Misconceptions among youth and the use of e-cigarettes are one reason Swain is going to be hosting small group discussions on the subject at the high school. Sale said some of the misconceptions include that they’re not harmful.
“They don’t understand there are significant amounts of nicotine and other substances like metals,” he said.
The National Cancer Institute has shown there are more than 250 chemicals in cigarettes— with at least 69 that cause cancer. Some of the cancer-causing chemicals include arsenic, formaldehyde, nickel, carbon monoxide and even cyanide. Studies show e-cigarettes contain many of the same chemicals, some of which have not been tested for toxicity in vapor form or once they are heated.
Nicotine’s effects on the developing brains of teens are also a point of concern. Smoking during adolescence can increase the risk of psychiatric disorders and cognitive impairment later in life, according to the CDC. It can also impair attention, memory and learning.
“This is not a point of judgment on my part,” Sale said. “I’m not devaluing people because they participate in this. I’m concerned for safety and health, and I know for a fact what the effects of nicotine are on an adolescent brain. And, in the past, Big Tobacco targeted adolescents because they knew if they could get their brain addicted—they had them for life.”
When it comes to school policy, e-cigarettes and vape products are treated like other products that contain tobacco. The students, faculty and staff and even community members are not allowed to use the products on campus or on any school activities.
When students are caught with the products on campus, the items will be confiscated and the student will be required to take part in an educational treatment plan, such as watching a series of videos educating them on the dangers of the products.
“I wish people would understand it’s illegal. It’s a misdemeanor whenever an adult provides something like this to a student or child,” Sale said. “They are putting themselves at risk of action.”