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Five Columbus High School students on average are caught vaping on school grounds every week.

Assistant Principal Jon Frey said during a Thursday interview with The Telegram that these numbers are raising eyebrows - and lots of concern - among school administrators.

“Every school in the country is dealing with this right now,” said Frey, noting it's possible for students to purchase their vaping materials online by falsifying their age.

Frey said the issue can be traced back to the teens' misconception that vaping is a safer alternative than cigarette smoking. And while the verdict is still out regarding the true harm vaping causes, the high nicotine concentration in vaping devices is a real cause of concern.

Because of mindset that vaping is a better smoking option, Frey said its becoming a popular trend among teenagers, in addition to adults which vaping companies say they target in an effort to reduce the number of traditional smokers. 

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), e-cigs, e-hookahs, mods, vape pens, vapes, and tank systems fall under the umbrella term of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS). These devices typically deliver nicotine, flavorings, and other additives to users via an inhaled aerosol.

Vaping increased by 78 percent among high school students since 2017 and 49 percent among middle schoolers, information from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey says.

Among the different ENDS, Frey said Juuls – a 3.75-inch e-cigarette with a cartridge containing oils to create vapor that dissolves into the air – are the most popular among students because they are easier to hide in plain sight. He said these devices can be tucked away in pockets and concealed in waistbands and backpack straps.

“It’s become much easier to sneak that,” said Frey, noting many students attempt to vape inside restrooms and locker rooms because of the absence of security cameras.

Although there were youth smoking cigarettes before the rise of vapes, Frey said many avoided it because of its pungent smell -- a telltale sign and natural deterrent. Despite past cases of students smoking cigarettes on school grounds, Frey said it never became a major issue.

“When somebody lights up a cigarette, it shows up very quickly,” he said. “You can pick that up in the air…”

Because vaping oils retail in a variety of flavors like fruit, candy and desserts, Frey said it releases a more pleasant scent and taste, which appeals to youth. Many students, he said, can power through one Juul cartridge – that can contain approximately 59 mg/ml of substance – relatively quickly without realizing the amount of nicotine they've inhaled.

“And for a brain that isn’t fully developed until age 25, that’s a pretty serious concern that we have in terms of brain development because nicotine does impact that,” Frey said.

Frey said school administrators have made it their mission to educate staff, students and parents about the dangers of vaping and its consequences.

“We follow the guidelines in our student handbook as a standard tobacco response,” Frey said. “We are trying to send a very strong message to our students that this is not something we want to see happening and it’s not good for them.”

Jamie Rodriguez, project coordinator at East Central District Health Department, said through a released statement that nicotine exposure during these crucial developmental years can make youth more susceptible to other addictions later in life.

Jodi Hefti, a Columbus police officer and CHS resource officer, said city officials on Tuesday sanctioned an ordinance making it unlawful for any minor under the age of 18 to smoke, use or have in that minor’s possession, custody or control of cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, smokeless tobacco, tobacco in other forms, vapor and alternative nicotine products. Hefti said individuals caught in possession of any of these items will be given a citation.

As a result, school administrators are working closely with the police department when it comes to handling reports of students vaping. 

According to the CHS handbook, students caught in possession of any tobacco-related devices or supplies are penalized with a day or two of in-school suspension. However, if they are caught using these devices, the punishment is raised to three to four days for the first offense.

When in-school suspension is off the table as an option, the student will receive an out-of-school suspension.

Frey said those caught distributing any tobacco-related devices or supplies on school grounds will automatically receive an out-of-school suspension. Since the start 2017-18 school year, Frey said he's come across two cases of students distributing the banned items.

“If our goal was to keep it straight out of their hands, we’d have a very tough fight on our hands,” Frey said. “So we recognize that we are not necessarily going to win the battle of keeping them out of their hands, so the next goal is to educate. Make sure that parents and students understand the risks, dangers.”

Students were also reminded of the school’s policy restricting them from promoting the use of vapes, tobacco and marijuana. Frey said administrators keep a close eye on the different trends that come and go within the student population.

And that’s when they came across the word “Lit.” After conducting research, Frey said this particular word is connected to some organizations that sell tobacco, vaping products and marijuana paraphernalia.

Because of that, school administrators have prohibited students from wearing clothing with the word “Lit” present, deeming it inappropriate for school because of it's negative connotation.

Frey said it’s still too soon to tell where the rates of vaping among students will end up. He advised students and community members to reach out to Rodriquez at (402) 563-9656 EXT 265 for more information on vaping.

“We want to work together with our (students’) families (and) support them as absolute best we can to make sure that our students are healthy and that our students are making choices that are best for them,” Frey said.

Natasya Ong is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach her via email at natasya.ong@lee.net.

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