JUUL, an electronic cigarette (e-cig) brand, has made headlines in recent months regarding its nationwide popularity among high school — and even middle school — students. JUUL is promoted as an alternative to combustible cigarettes and existing e-cigs and other vaping devices. However, the JUUL’s popularity is becoming an issue for local schools as administration, educators and school resource officers work to keep these devices out of students’ hands and off school campuses.
Numerous studies have been done in regard to the health risks associated with e-cigs. The USB-charged device has been under scrutiny after experts say it has worse health risks than tobacco cigarettes, while a recent study performed by JUUL Labs said that those vaping with JUULs have a lower risk of cancer compared to those smoking tobacco cigarettes.
The OPS Board of Education voted in approval Thursday to add a sentence to their tobacco use policy outlined in the OPS Discipline Code Handbook that focuses on the use of JUULs on school campuses. The new sentence refers to prohibiting e-cigarettes, saying, “This includes the JUUL vaping device which resembles a flash drive and can be charged in a laptop USB port.”
Board member Michael Johnson said there’s been an issue with older students selling JUULs to younger students at OPS, and Johnson has spearheaded the board’s attempts to get JUULing under control.
“We’re trying to get the awareness out to the parents because a lot of parents don’t even know what they are,” Johnson said. “Their kids are under the radar.”
The DCPS Code of Conduct doesn’t mention the prohibition of JUULs specifically, but it does include the prohibited use of “e-cigs, personal vaporizers or any other electronic inhaler that simulates the act of smoking.”
School resource officers (SROs) who work at the local high schools in Owensboro say the use of JUULs in the classroom has become a daily occurrence. Not only that, but Owensboro Public School’s Resource Officer Rick Latanzio said there are no stereotypes when it comes to the JUULing phenomenon.
“There’s no demographic bias, no gender bias,” Latanzio said.
Latanzio said catching students with the small, easily-hidden devices is a daily grind for teachers and for himself. Even more trying for those attempting to combat the problem, is that JUULing hasn’t shown signs of slowing.
“Since probably the fall and winter, it’s really picked up. A couple months after school started in the fall, it’s picked up a lot,” Latanzio said. “Here, and I’m sure it’s the same at Daviess County High School, we catch at least one student a day with a JUUL. Some days there’s more, but that’s about the average.”
According to SRO Paul Mattingly, JUULling at DCHS has continued to remain an ongoing issue for the school.
“CNN calls it an epidemic at [all] high schools. [At DCHS], it’s like any other high school. It’s a problem,” Mattingly said. “It’s easy to hide, and it’s easily accessible.”
One small pod of e-juice or e-liquid contained in a JUUL is equal to one pack of cigarettes. Students regularly vape through more than one pod a day, according to the SROs.
Though Mattingly wouldn’t say he confiscates “a lot” of JUUL devices at DCHS, he feels the biggest issue is that most students don’t really know what they’re inhaling. According to Mattingly, students probably share their JUULs, some of which may be filled with pods containing other substances — most popularly, THC.
“[Students] think they’re taking a hit off strawberry melon and they get something they didn’t bargain for,” Mattingly said.
According to Mattingly and Latanzio, students often sneak their JUULs into on-campus restrooms so they can hide the vapor that’s exhaled from the e-cig. Mattingly said teachers at DCHS have stayed vigilant in apprehending these students, and many have even begun monitoring the restrooms for signs of JUUL use.
Mattingly said at least one JUUL had been confiscated at a DCPS middle school, but that he wouldn’t be surprised if older students were selling them to middle schoolers. Daviess County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Barry Smith told Owensboro Times that at least one high school student went home in late January after caught using an e-cig. That student later went to the hospital, but Smith could not confirm if the medical attention was due to the e-cig. Mattingly chose not to discuss the incident with Owensboro Times.
Aware of the growing problem, Mattingly said he is trying to be proactive and extended an offer to teachers for a classroom presentation.
“I’m booked all the way through March,” he said.
Mattingly plans to reach out to other schools aside from DCHS, including the middle schools, to educate students on nicotine addiction, allergic reactions and health risks associated with vaping.
Because of those health risks and widespread JUUL use, Latanzio said he believes the small device has become a bigger problem than cigarettes in the high school population.
Dr. Shanna McGinnis, a pediatrician at Owensboro Health Children’s Center, said teenagers’ use of JUULs could have definite impacts on their health and mood. The use of JUULs in adolescence will likely create a pathway toward the use of tobacco cigarettes, according to the pediatrician.
“Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical that can have an impact on the developing adolescent brain,” McGinnis said. “A 2016 report from the Department of Health and Human Services states that nicotine can specifically affect the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control.”
McGinnis said that because vaping and e-cig use is so new, the long-term effects of JUUL use aren’t known, but said it’s likely that many of the ingredients contained in the vaping liquids will cause lung damage for users.
“One of the biggest concerns about vaping and e-cig use in children is that they are more likely to transition to tobacco cigarettes or smoke them in addition to vaping,” McGinnis said. “Although there are fewer harmful chemicals contained in most vaping liquids than tobacco cigarettes, I would certainly not say that vaping is healthier than smoking cigarettes.”
OHS and DCHS enforce in-school suspension when students are caught with a JUUL. At OHS, Latanzio said they will write a citation for students who are caught at least three times, but they try to keep the punishment in-house as much as possible to avoid clogging the court system.
Mattingly said DCHS isn’t able to issue citations because of a recent change made by DCPS, directing students toward the Kentucky Community & Restorative Justice program rather than issuing citations for underage and on-campus nicotine use.
Mattingly said he fully supports issuing citations to students who break the law and the rules, and that he isn’t sure the Restorative Justice program is the best method of punishment.
“If it were up to me, I would charge them,” Mattingly said. “I would love to do it because it might send them a message. Our main goal is to keep the students happy and healthy, and to keep them aware of what this can do to your body.”
***Editor’s note: After this article was published, a spokesperson from JUUL Labs reached out to Owensboro Times and offered the following response.