Editor’s note: This story about the rise in teen e-cigarette use, written by Westfield High School student Greta Frontero, originally ran in the Jan. 8 edition of WHS student newspaper Hi’s Eye.
WESTFIELD, NJ — A 12th-grade Westfield High School female said she doesn’t bring her Juul to school, but will use someone else’s if the opportunity arises.
“If we have a substitute in a certain class or if we aren’t doing anything important, it’s not uncommon for a few of us girls to go and Juul together in the bathroom,” she said.
A 12th-grade male at WHS said he Juuls “a few times every day,” adding, “It’s just easy to use anywhere, so if I’m bored or watching TV or something, I’ll just keep hitting it.”
Another senior female added that she has used the Juul at school, at parties and at home.
“It’s not uncommon for me to hit my Juul in bed, while doing homework and stuff like that,” she said.
Seven months ago, Hi’s Eye reported on the increased use of electronic cigarettes among WHS students. As 2018 begins, e-cigarettes, the most common being the USB-shaped Juul, have become a nationwide trend, particularly among teens. It’s a trend that is weaving itself into all aspects of teens’ social and academic lives, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
This trend has become so commonplace at WHS that, as one senior male put it, “It’s almost normal to Juul here and has become just another part of teenage behavior.”
Another senior male said, “There is really no reaction from other students when it comes to Juuling, inside or outside of school, because so many people do it or have at least tried it.”
Juuls and other e-cigarettes are not a trend confined to Westfield. According to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General from 2016, “E-cigarettes are now the most commonly used tobacco product among youth.”
In addition, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that 16 percent of 12th graders have used e-cigarettes in the past month. For 10th-graders, that number is 14 percent, and for 8th-graders, it’s at 10 percent. These numbers, by the way, are from a February 2016 study—the most recent numbers readily available from the U.S. government — so actual use today may be even higher.
Many teens have personal connections with their Juuls. Some students decorate them with stickers, or write their names on them using nail polish or Sharpies. They require chargers, just like smartphones do, and students carry those around, as well. Some go so far as to steal one another’s. And they have no problem buying Juuls in town, despite a state law banning sales of e-cigarette devices to individuals under 21.
Student Resource Officer Elizabeth Savnik is worried about the increased popularity of Juuls among WHS students.
“It has become a habitual thing for a lot of the kids here,” she said. “They’re so used to doing it that I don’t think they understand what they are actually putting into their bodies.”
Juuling in school is a rising trend in neighboring towns, as well. Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School Principal Dr. David Heisey said that Juuling/vaping incidents (use or possession) have increased at SPF High School, and that based on current information and conversations with officials from other schools, it is indeed a national trend.
Perhaps due to a rising awareness of the issue among faculty and staff, Juul-related suspensions have also increased at WHS. For instance, a single incident last month resulted in the suspension of three WHS seniors.
History teacher Antony Farag was involved in the incident that led to the suspensions. He said that he suspected students were Juuling in the bathroom one day when a hallway monitor approached him, asking him to look inside.
“When I walked inside, it was more than obvious that the boys were not actually using the bathroom for what bathrooms are used for,” he said. “They were exchanging things underneath the stalls of the bathroom, and it became obvious that they were associated with Juuling.”
A senior male involved, who was suspended later that day, said that several administrators then surrounded the bathroom and escorted each boy to Office A to be searched. He claimed he was not using his Juul, but he had left his Juul charger in his backpack that day.
He said two WHS assistant principals asked if he was vaping in the bathroom, “to which I responded no, because I wasn’t,” he said. “But then they searched me and my backpack and found my Juul battery, and the rest is history.”
This was not the first time that WHS students have been suspended for Juuling in the building. Last year a senior male was caught Juuling during class when his chemistry teacher’s back was turned, resulting in a three-day suspension.
“I took a hit of it and blew it in my sweatshirt, but the smoke came out the back of my jacket,” he said. “When my teacher asked why there was smoke coming out of my jacket and I opened my mouth to respond, more smoke came out of my mouth.”
Assistant Principal James DeSarno said that the school has been working on prevention techniques, which includes taking measures to educate faculty and staff about this Juuling trend.
“We are trying to get more eyes and ears involved with the adults in the building,” said DeSarno. “We’re looking into better educating ourselves, as teachers and administrators and as the adults in the building, and researching things that we can do.”
Additionally, Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson believes it is just as important to educate students and parents on Juuls, because most of the activity is occurring at home. He said the best prevention method the school can use is “educating the students on the potential harms and dangers, but also helping to educate our parents in our community about the detriment and the dangers of the items and what the long-term effects could be in using these pieces.”
The pressing question on the minds of parents, teachers and administrators alike when it comes to Juuling, especially in school, is why? Some students say it is a good way to reduce stress during school.
“If I get an opportunity to Juul in school, I take it,” said a WHS senior female. “It’s sometimes a nice feeling when I’m stressed out.”
Another senior female said she Juuls in school “sometimes out of boredom or to relieve stress.” She added, “It gives a nice little head rush to reduce some of the pressure and stress of school.”
However, when Hi’s Eye asked students involved in the suspensions last month why they Juuled in the bathroom, a common response was to simply shrug and say, “I don’t really know.”
Farag has an idea that explains the phenomenon. “They want to be the ‘savage,’ they want to be the person that can get away with it,” he said. “I guess it makes them feel good about themselves, but it ends up being a costly and addictive way to just feel good about yourself in front of your peers and laugh and joke about something you got away with.”
While students who Juul are likely aware of the potential punishment from both the school and law enforcement, teens are largely unaware of the health dangers of e-cigarettes.
As the devices are advertised on the JUUL Labs website as a healthier alternative to combustible cigarettes, many students believe that Juuls have no harmful effects, especially in comparison to other drugs.
“Honestly there aren’t any harmful effects [of Juuls], so it’s not a major problem,” said a senior male. “It’s not like it’s weed or some other drug.”
Similarly, a senior female said, “I understand that it’s not healthy for you and that it shouldn’t be done in school, but there could be other things going on that are far worse, like real drugs.”
However, the reality is that health experts do not believe that dangerous, long-term effects don’t exist — they just can’t determine what they are yet. Melanie Horton, a physician liaison at University Medical Center of Princeton, said that pulmonologists have been concerned with the rise in e-cigarette use by adolescents because it is unclear how exactly the drug affects the body.
“The nicotine concentration is higher, which many teens are unaware of, as they do not read the labels of e-cigarette products,” she said. “So health officials are concerned with determining long-term effects of e-cigarettes, as these products are still fairly new on the market.”
WHS health teacher Susan Kolesar emphasized this point as well.
“What I know about Juuls is that we don’t know much,” she said. “It is still a very new way to take in nicotine, but what I can tell you is that nicotine is highly addictive. It raises blood pressure and it raises heart rate.”
In addition, drugs other than nicotine can be used in Juuls and other e-cigarettes. For instance, Nelson said the main reason he is concerned with students Juuling is that they cannot always know what they are actually putting into their bodies.
“It’s odorless, it’s smokeless, and it’s been proven that you can have tobacco in it, as well as THC, which is marijuana, and even drugs like acid, heroin and all of those different illegal substances without even knowing,” he said. “You really don’t know the quantity or potency of what you’re taking.”
However, the lack of available information and education on Juuls, which launched in 2015, has led to widespread unawareness among students of the devices’ health dangers.
“I think because we as kids and students see it all the time all around us, we are so normalized to it and don’t think anything of the effects,” said a senior female. “We see everyone doing it with no blatant or obvious negatives.”
The 2016 Surgeon General’s report identified several potential health effects of e-cigarettes, ranging from nicotine addiction and potential use of conventional cigarettes to effects on the brain and mental health.
Beyond affecting their health, Kolesar believes Juuling can be detrimental to other aspects of students’ lives, especially if they get suspended for it.
“This could affect their reputation, it could affect their college opportunities,” she said. “If they get suspended it could alter everything about their college acceptances, and it definitely puts them behind the eight-ball.”
Additionally, Juuling can negatively impact students’ relationships with their parents. One WHS senior female said that her parents know she Juuls and they “absolutely hate it,” which often leads to arguments at home.
A senior male, who was suspended for Juuling at school, said that his parents reacted very negatively to his suspension. “My mom came into the guidance office crying when she was called, and my dad didn’t talk to me for about a month,” he said. “I was grounded for two months and wasn’t allowed to go anywhere besides school and practice. I got yelled at pretty bad.”
The parental knowledge on Juuls and e-cigarettes, or lack thereof, also plays into WHS administrators’ perspective on this trend.
“I look at this more as a parent than as an administrator,” said DeSarno. “I worry that the students who are doing this stuff don’t actually know what they’re doing, don’t have any knowledge of what’s in these things.”
Similarly, Principal Nelson looks at the Juuling trend as it relates to his own daughter. “As a father, my daughter is only 4, but what scares me is what is going to be around when she’s 14,” he said. “If this is what’s happening now, 10 years from now, when she enters high school, what will kids be doing then?”
“Let’s face it, there have been drugs in high schools as long as there have been high schools,” Nelson added. “But it’s changed, and in my opinion it’s increased over the decades. There is so much more out there that kids can get access to.”
So what does WHS do moving forward with this issue? Savnik said she is trying to educate the staff on e-cigarettes.
“It’s a very important and personal issue to me, because I lost my mom to cancer,” she said.
Farag said he views Juul use as part of a student’s search for self.
“I wonder if they need to find their place in a more positive way in the school,” he said. “And that’s where we come in as teachers and counselors and administrators. We are here to help them find their place. So it’s kind of a two-fold issue.”
A year ago, the WHS staff knew little about Juul use. But that’s no longer the case.
“We all kind of know what’s going on,” Farag said. “We, the teachers and the administrators, know what’s happening. It’s just a matter of minimizing the usage of it. We could surveil the bathrooms more, because that’s where this seems to be taking place.”
And as the new year begins, this usage continues. A 12th-grade female said she enjoys the “head rush” of the Juul and said this feeling lasts “like 10 minutes depending on how many hits I take.”
But as she and many of her peers continue using Juuls, does she worry about what she’s doing?
“I do think Juuling could be considered a problem, not for the academic sake of students, but more for their futures,” she said. “Since it’s such a new thing, no one really knows the possible outcomes it could have on users in the future.”