Inside a conference room at Service High School, Assistant Principal Jim Bell pulls out a large cardboard box. It’s filled with vape pens, e-cigarettes, and other related accessories. All of it was confiscated from students.
He takes out a watch and pushes a button on its side, detaching the face of the watch from the band, turning it into a vape pen.
The vape watch even tells time. Most vape pens in the box are less impressive — they look like usb sticks or mechanical lead pencil cases. But there’s other stuff too.
Bell brings out a pile of 22 e-cigarette cartridges in a variety of flavors, taken from a student who was trying to sell them at school.
According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior survey, about 16 percent of students in traditional high schools in Alaska reported currently using e-cigarettes.
At the state level, more recent figures are still being collected, but a national study in 2019 found nearly 28 percent of high school students use e-cigarettes. And the issue is getting a lot of attention.
There have been a series of changes to federal and state laws and bans on certain flavors of e-cigarette cartridges. There are also lawsuits cropping up across the country against e-cigarette companies. All of it is targeted at getting students to stop vaping.
Read more: Anchorage raises age to buy tobacco products to 21
But, most often it’s school administrators who are on the front lines of the issue.
“I was very surprised at just how students don’t care if it’s in class or in the middle [of class],” said Service High Principal Frank Houser. “They really felt the need, the desire, the addiction to take a hit off of the e-cigarette or the vape.”
Hauser oversees 1,500 students at Service High and said youth vaping is one of the issues that keeps him up at night.
“We are dealing with with a product that is vaporized right into the blood system and it is pure nicotine,” Hauser said. “That is, I do believe, the most addictive drug substance out there.”
Hauser said the school is gathering their own data to try to get a better understanding of the scope of the issue. But at the end of the day he said he can only control what’s happening inside the school. It’s critical to partner with parents, he explained.
One Service High School parent, who didn’t want to give her name, said that her daughter, a senior at Service, is addicted to vaping.
“I think she’s smoking about five packs a week,” she said. “You don’t want to think about that with your own child. I thought I was paying attention, and it happened anyway.”
She described her daughter as a normal teenager — she’s kind and polite, has a job in the community. She’s smart. So, it was a shock to discover her daughter had been vaping since she was a freshman.
“We still say how unhealthy it is, how we wish she wouldn’t do it, but we cannot stop her,” she said.
The woman said her daughter has tried to quit a few times, unsuccessfully. She’s particularly worried about her daughter’s health.
Vaping is often marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking, but a rash of recent vaping related deaths and illness across the country have put a spotlight on the potential dangers of the activity.
The CDC reports over 2,600 people were hospitalized and 60 people have died from e-cigarette or vaping associated lung injuries (EVALI).
In December 2019, Alaska became the last state in the country to report an EVALI case when a teenage male from Southeast Alaska was hospitalized over the Thanksgiving holiday.
A recent study more closely links EVALI cases to THC-containing vaping products, but the CDC continues to recommend that youth never use e-cigarettes.
At Dimond High School, Chris Kleckner, the Student Services Principal, said it surprised him just how quickly vaping caught on. He explained the problem is difficult to track because vaping is so easy to hide.
“They went from having big vapes that gave off huge plumes to something that didn’t give off anything,” he said. “That looked like a USB and can fit in someone’s sleeve, or hidden in undergarments.”
At Dimond, when Kleckner and other administrators realized how common it was, they went on the offensive. There are posters up on all of the bathroom doors highlighting certain chemicals found in vapes. The school even brought in a doctor to talk to students about the effect of vaping on the body.
“Because it’s so stealthy, the kids can do it anywhere,” he said. “So we’re making certain our presence is felt.”
Administrators at both high schools are using similar strategies: checking bathrooms more frequently and confiscating vape cartridges and pens. Schools sometimes suspend repeat offenders or allow resource officers to issue tickets that could ultimately lead to a fine of hundreds of dollars.
Kleckner wants the community to know the school takes the vaping issue seriously.
“We’re no longer behind the curve,” he said. “We’re right into it.”