A small puff of vapor escaped from the 17-year-old girl’s mouth as she walked with her friend, 16, along Bardstown Road.
The two kids are a typical 3:15 p.m. sight for the stretch of restaurants and shops not far from several major high schools.
But they weren’t just hanging out. She was on her way to a job interview at a restaurant, and in her hands, barely visible, was a Juul, a sleek e-cigarette that looks more like an oversized flash drive than a smoking device. As she’s wont to do in times of stress, the teenage girl was vaping (and doing it illegally, which is why she is not being identified).
She and her friend crossed the street again before slipping into the doors of the restaurant. She left him for her interview, and returned not long after.
“I was over there the whole time thinking, ‘I want to hit my Juul,’” said the girl.
She was gone for 31 minutes.
The girl is one of 3.6 million American high school and middle school users of e-cigarettes, according to government data. Around 11 percent of Kentucky high schoolers copped to current e-cigarette use in a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2017 survey. That’s compared to 13.2 percent of students nationwide. Almost 42 percent of Kentucky high schoolers have admitted to trying an e-cigarette.
One consequence is that Louisville schools are overwhelmed by students using e-cigarettes, according to interviews with 26 students, teachers and administrators. The devices are easily concealable and mistakable for USB drives and pens — even for the school administrators who are bent on curbing in-school use.
The devices use electronics to turn a nicotine-infused, often flavored, liquid into a vapor, which is barely detectable when exhaled.
In school, kids will take hits when the teachers’ backs are turned, and duck to blow the vapor into their shirts. Or they’ll hold it in their mouths until the vapor dissipates. The smell, which is usually fruity, doesn’t linger, and it doesn’t cling to student’s clothes, unlike cigarette smoke.
At Atherton High School, 20 to 30 vape devices have been confiscated since the beginning of the school year, said Assistant Principal Foster Jones. “There’s not a day or, really, a week that goes by that we’re not getting a report or seeing somebody,” said Jones.
Students said that they and their peers are addicted, unable to stop even if they wanted to do so. Many interviewed were unaware of the health effects of the devices.
Their schools’ teachers and administrators and their parents are often just as confused as they are, either not aware of the problem, not sure of the severity or unable to figure out how to stop it.
A recent crackdown by the FDA has brought about significant changes for how e-cigarettes are sold and to whom, including forcing stores to limit flavored e-cigarettes to sectioned-off areas.
Juul Labs, whose device takes up around 70 percent of the e-cigarette market, said it will stop selling its flavored pods (the part of the device that holds the e-liquid) in retail shops unless the stores invest in age-verification technology to ensure customers for that product are over the age of 21.
Experts, local and national, applauded the changes, but doubt their effectiveness.
“I think if students really, or if youth, really, wanted to get ahold of Juuls, they would,” said Kandi Walker, a UofL Department of Communication professor who’s coauthored studies on e-cigarettes through the university’s American Heart Association Tobacco Regulation and Addiction Center.
Students said they rarely buy their e-cigarettes and pods from retailers, although it is possible. Eight local stores were cited by the FDA over the summer for selling to minors. Most students interviewed, though, said they have older classmates or siblings buy it for them, and often pay a premium as a result.
“It’s the same if you’re, like, a drug dealer,” said a duPont Manual High School student. “A Juul costs $50, so your fee is $80.”
Lilah Weiss, a Manual student who was one week away from turning 18 when interviewed, has had multiple classmates ask her if she’ll buy pods for them after her birthday.
Her response: “No, thank you.”
Even if Weiss wanted to buy pods for her classmates — which she doesn’t — she wouldn’t want someone to see her and think less of her.
Not everyone thinks vaping is cool — even though many seem to.
Weiss does not vape. The senior is protective of her health, she said. But she does know a lot of people who aren’t so concerned.
“I feel like half my class is vaping,” she said.
As one Manual student put it, “we all have” hit a Juul before.
Like with cigarette smoking, teens use the bathrooms as smoking rooms.
A post on a meme account on Instagram, often followed by teens, quips, “Why are there toilets in the Juul room?”
At Assumption, Dean of Students Cindi Baughman said she’s caught students hanging out in bathroom stalls together. In one instance, when they emerged, she discovered they were carrying a vaping device, Juul pods and a bottle of e-liquid. Baughman wasn’t sure how many e-cigarettes she’s confiscated since the school first started catching students vaping last year.
Some parents and teachers seem unaware of how big of a problem teen vaping has become, said Weiss. Her mother, Robin Weiss, the school’s parent-teacher-student association president, said other parents ask her whether vaping is popular.
“Yes, absolutely,” she tells them. “Lots of students are doing it.”
Vaping is not limited to just the bad kids — it crosses grades and social groups. The friend from the beginning of the story, who attends Atherton High School, said he’s seen unexpected groups of people trade hits before class starts: from athletes to the popular kids.
Some students are casual users, while others are addicted.
One Juul pod can contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, according to the company, and it’s not unheard of to drain one in a day, perhaps during an evening of playing “Fortnite” and watching YouTube, according to the Atherton student. One Manual student claimed she knows someone who can inhale an entire pod in two, lengthy hits as a party trick.
E-cigarettes, while a better alternative for adults addicted to cigarettes, aren’t recommended for adolescents. Nicotine can harm the developing brain by rewiring the organ and impairing cognitive and decision-making capabilities, and the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes are still unknown, said Aruni Bhatnagar, a professor of medicine at UofL who has studied vaping.
And multiple studies have shown that teens who smoke e-cigarettes are more likely to start smoking regular cigarettes.
A Trinity High School student knew of a friend who wanted to quit, but couldn’t. Instead, he stopped buying Juul pods, restricting himself to only taking hits from his friends. It would be a lot easier to quit, he said, if everyone else did, too.
The teenager said he buys his Juul pods from stores, getting past the age restriction by acting confident. But that isn’t the norm for other teenagers who were interviewed.
At smoke shops along Bardstown Road, two employees and one owner said they consistently check IDs to make sure customers are over 18, including a clerk at Puff Puff Pass.
Still, the salesperson said, if teenagers are smoking, she’d rather they be vaping than inhaling “all of the poison” in regular cigarettes.
The crown jewel of e-cigs
The Juul is the preferred vaping device of teenagers, so popular that its name has become a verb — “juuling.” But there also are Blu-brand devices and Suorin vapes, which can look like portable battery packs, both deemed by students as acceptable.
Juuls, which were created in 2015, have been blamed for the rise in teen vaping, with an explicit call-out from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb — their relatively recent increase in popularity coinciding with skyrocketing rates of teen e-cigarette use. Juul’s sales increased 641 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to a CDC analysis, while current underage e-cigarette use increased 78 percent from last year to this year, as reported in the FDA’s 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey.
Lilah Weiss believes Juuls are popular with her classmates because they’re concealable. E-cigarette companies, including Juul, have also been accused of marketing to teenagers by selling flavors and posting on social media.
As more teens use e-cigarettes, their perception of regular cigarettes has worsened. In 2015, 94 percent of students surveyed in a University of California San Francisco and Stanford University School of Medicine study said they intended to never smoke, compared to 65 percent in 2001.
Cigarettes are seen as gross, while vaping is viewed as sleek and modern, according to Walker. Juuls are “kind of like the Apple of vaping products,” said Evan Showalter, a junior at Manual who doesn’t vape.
Juul spokesperson Ted Kwong said in an email that the company never intended to appeal to teenagers.
“But intent is not enough,” Kwong continued in an activist tone that Juul has adopted recently, “the numbers are what matter, and the numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarette products is a problem. We must solve it.”
Numbers don’t add up
Foster Jones launched himself from his desk and into a hallway that was quickly filling up.
The bell had rung at Atherton High School.
Jones, one of four assistant principals there, settled against a corner wall before springing forward again to break up groups of chatty students and guide them to their next classes.
He rarely sees kids vaping in the hallway during passing periods. “If they were going to do it, they’d go out into the courtyard probably,” he said.
Vaping is common at Atherton, but you wouldn’t know it from the school district’s records.
In Jefferson County’s public middle and high schools, 59 incidents of found “vapor products” were recorded this school year as of Nov. 7 — on track to surpass last year’s total of 109, according to data provided in an open records request. Only one incident this year was recorded at Atherton.
“That’s not accurate,” said Jones about Atherton’s numbers. He could recall two violations reported that week.
Jones wasn’t sure why JCPS’ numbers are so far off, but he speculated that it could be because the recording system, Infinite Campus, does not distinguish between cigarettes and e-cigarettes — it just has a category for “tobacco products.” Staff can only specify that the device was a “vapor product” in the incident’s narrative.
A JCPS spokesperson did not respond to an email asking about how vapor product violations are reported.
The approach of schools to student use of e-cigarettes is starkest between public and private institutions.
JCPS describes itself as a tobacco free district with a zero-tolerance policy toward tobacco products. Tobacco covers e-cigarettes in school materials. JCPS’ Student Support and Behavior Intervention Handbook says that if an e-cigarette or tobacco-related device is spotted, it will be confiscated, parents will be notified and information about cessation services will be given. Other punishments, such as detention and in school suspension, are optional. After repeated offenses of use or possession, a student may be suspended for one to three days.
For Jones at Atherton, e-cigarettes aren’t high on his list of concerns. Unlike with the smell of cigarettes, or even students coming in late to class, it isn’t a disturbance, he said. The school’s ultimate goal is to make sure kids are in class, engaged and learning.
“We have enough going on to address,” he said, later adding, “We don’t really seek it out, but of course we address it when it’s blatant or if it’s reported.”
Jones doesn’t see possession of an e-cigarette alone as a suspendible offense, although punishment depends on the case.
One Atherton teacher, Tony Prince, said in a text that he was lucky to work at a school where the focus stays “largely on what’s important.”
“It’s impossible to keep focused on student learning if we’re expected to explore every object they might have in their hands at any given time. You just can’t do it,” he said.
Other JCPS teachers said that administrators have rarely, if ever, addressed vaping with them.
Christina Causey, a teacher at Manual, said she has never seen a student vape on campus. Administrators briefly talked about e-cigarettes once during a staff meeting.
Another teacher at a different JCPS school, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said he’d never heard administration talk about e-cigarettes.
Renee Murphy, a spokesperson for JCPS, ignored requests for an interview, choosing instead to email statements.
“I can tell you right now some of our staff will be attending a conference to gain some additional training and knowledge around vaping,” she wrote. “That information will be shared with schools. We are working to find out as much information as we can about vaping to make sure we can best educate our students.”
St. Xavier High School, a Catholic school, has recorded only a “small number” of vaping infractions this year, and catching them is a priority, according to Frank Espinosa, the principal. He said allowing students to get away with vaping could harm the school’s environment. Students caught vaping are assessed to see if they need counseling. If the student has a history of rule breaking, they’re suspended, he said.
“If we catch a kid that is vaping in the school, we want to send the strongest message that we can send to these kids, and that is we’re not going to tolerate you vaping in any of the classrooms, any of the bathrooms, wherever, on school campus, in the building,” he said.
Expulsion is possible for chronic rule-breakers, Espinosa said. It’s happened before, although not in response to a vaping incident.
“It’s a privilege to go to school here,” said Espinosa about St. Xavier. “And if they’re [students] not going to take that privilege seriously, then we have to help them understand that this is what we really need and expect from a student.”
Several St. Xavier students said that they do not vape in school, but some do off campus.
Last year at Assumption, another private institution, the school made possession or use of an e-cigarette as serious an infraction as a drug or alcohol offense. If caught, students may receive counseling. Then, they’re given seven demerits, which can make it harder to run for school office or apply to the National Honor Society, and they are suspended for one to three days. During that time, they can’t receive academic credit, meaning they receive zeroes for all their assignments and tests.
Baughman said the new rules seem to have cut vaping, although she couldn’t immediately provide the number of students punished this year.
Joy Hart, a UofL professor who works with Walker, has noted the different approaches that schools across the country have taken to vaping — and the different results that have emerged.
“I think when schools take a very proactive tobacco free stance, ‘we’re enforcing it,’ then they’re more like to lessen, if not eliminate, the use at the school,” she said.
New rules don’t worry teens
The September press release from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb was lengthy and alarming.
“E-cigs have become an almost ubiquitous — and dangerous — trend among teens,” he said.“It’s simply not tolerable.”
The agency asked Juul and other e-cigarette manufacturers to submit “robust” plans for how they would curb underage use of their products.
Two months later, on Nov. 15, the FDA announced it would require retailers to sell their flavored e-cigarettes in closed-off areas of their stores. The agency has yet to provide additional details on what this will look like in practice.
Two days before the FDA’s directive, Juul had announced plans to stop selling flavors in stores and add more age-verification technology to its website. Juul still plans to sell their mint, menthol and tobacco flavored e-cigarettes to retailers. The company has also halted all promotional use of their social media.
The FDA now is encouraging other manufacturers to ban flavors altogether.
Walker hopes these changes will spark a conversation about the dangers of teen e-cigarette use, but she’s not sure if they’ll help the kids who are already hooked.
Perhaps the most qualified people to answer that question are the teenagers themselves, and from a literal roundtable of students from Trinity, Sacred Heart and Manual high schools, eating at a Bardstown Road fast food restaurant, the answer was clear: “No,” they said — almost in unison.
“I think people will just buy more mint,” said one girl.
“The visual, of like, blowing something out of your mouth —” offered another girl.
“That’s what people like,” finished her friend.
Plus, they’ll still have older friends and other e-cigarette brands to turn to for their flavored fix, at least for now.
As another Atherton student put it, “No one’s really worried about it yet.” •