Metro Detroit schools weigh deterrents to vaping

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

They do it in school classrooms right in front of teachers and other students, using devices that look like flash drives and phone chargers that emit little to no odor and are easily hidden inside sleeves and hoodies.

Young people are drawn to vaping devices because they’re cheap, easy to access and assumed — falsely, experts say — to be safe.

Vaping — a form of electronic cigarettes — is booming in popularity inside Metro Detroit middle and high schools, prompting education leaders to turn to police and health officials for help.

Young people are drawn to the devices because they’re cheap, easy to access and assumed — falsely, experts say — to be safe. Adding to the problem: schools can ban vaping, but there’s no Michigan law banning minors from using e-cigarettes.

Teens are using the devices right in school, exhaling thick plumes of vapor into their clothing during class or on breaks in stairwells and bathrooms.

“Some school are saying this is an epidemic. They are dealing with it on a daily or weekly basis,” said Carol Mastroianni, executive director of the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition. “They can take a hit off of it and blow smoke in a shirt sleeve. ... This is happening in middle and high school (and) as early as fifth grade.”

The coalition, which raises awareness to prevent the abuse of drugs and alcohol, said schools in Oakland and Macomb counties say vaping incidents have been increasing in middle schools and become more prevalent in high schools.

“Because vaping is not like smoking — it doesn’t smell up the hallway or bathroom — it’s easy for kids to do it in school,” said school liaison officer David VanKerckhove, with the Bloomfield Township police department. “They go into the bathroom, or a stairwell or even some kids do it in the middle of class. The problem for teachers and staff is it’s hard to detect.”

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid — the juice — into an aerosol that the user inhales. The liquid usually has nicotine and flavoring in it as well as other additives.

Even e-cigarettes that don’t contain nicotine can still be harmful, according to health officials.

The device on right is a USB port. The device on the left is a vaping tool.

Vaping 101 for parents

This spring, dozens of districts across Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties are partnering with hospital systems to hold “vaping 101” information sessions to educate parents and school officials on what vaping is, what the devices look like and the range of vape liquids, or “juice,” that teens inhale.

Cheryl Phillips, coordinator program for St. Joseph Mercy Health Exploration Station, said she is in districts two to three times a week at the request of school officials to provide the education, which informs parents and students of the dangers of vaping, which include nicotine exposure, addiction and “popcorn lung,” a deadly respiratory condition.

Phillips was at Canton High School on Thursday, where she spoke to parents about the spike in vaping among teens.

“Schools are coping with this the best they can. It has dramatically increased this past year,” Phillips said. “Every district we have talked to says it’s a big problem.”

School officials attribute the increase in vaping in children to easy access to vaping tools in neighborhood retail stores and online. The devices are made to resemble everyday items such as cellphones, ink pens, flash drives and cosmetic containers that are easily overlooked by parents and educators.

“All of this stuff is marketed to be attractive to young people,” Mastroianni said.

Some districts have bans on vaping and e-cigarettes on campus and will discipline students who are caught, but police can do little when they spot a teen vaping.

Federal law bans the sale of tobacco products, including vaping materials, to anyone younger than 18.

But Michigan does not have a state law against a minor possessing vaping tools and juices — the liquid added to the device, police said.

Teens love to vape juices that smell sweet and have such names as “Rainbow Candy,” “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” and “Bubble Gum,” according to Mastroianni. They report getting a buzz from vaping and say they do it as a way to eliminate social awkwardness, she said.

“So what flavor do you vape? That is a conversation starter. These are the students who wouldn’t be using other substances. They aren’t using alcohol or marijuana,” she said. “They think vaping is safe.”

Cheryl Phillips, program coordinator at Saint Joseph Mercy Health Systems, gives a presentation for parents and students on vaping  at Canton High School.

1 in 3 try vaping

According to a survey published in December, nearly one in three students in 12th grade nationwide said they used some kind of vaping device in the last year. What they say is in the device, however, ranges from nicotine to marijuana to “just flavoring,” the survey said.

The findings come from the 2017 Monitoring the Future survey of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders in schools by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and scientists from the University of Michigan, who conduct the annual research.

The survey asks teens about “any vaping” to measure their use of electronic vaporizers. Some research suggests many teens do not know what is in the device they are using.

In December, the coalition gave its biannual Teen Substance Abuse and Mental Health Survey to more than 5,000 eighth- through 12th-graders in Birmingham Public Schools, Bloomfield Hills Public Schools and Cranbrook High School.

Part of the survey was specific to vaping and e-cigarettes. Nearly 21 percent said they had indulged in the past year, compared to 14.6 percent in 2015.

Use climbed as teens moved up in high school. Of the nearly 21 percent who used, about 4.3 percent were eighth-graders, 23.2 percent were 10th-graders and 33.1 percent were 12th-graders.

Stephanie Green, a senior at Groves High School in the Birmingham School District, said at least once a week in one of her classes she sees a fellow student vaping.

“People are not very discreet with vapes. You can’t smell it right away. People do it in class under their shirt. People leave chargers around. They do it at games and in the bathrooms quite a bit,” said Green, who is student chair of the Youth Action Board, part of the coalition.

Green has not vaped and said she doesn’t feel any pressure to, but said many teens cave in.

“People in my generation won’t smoke a cigarette, but they will take a vape. People haven’t seen the long-term effects like being fatigued,” Green said.

Parents from the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools check out vaping paraphernalia after a presentation on the habit at Canton High School on March 22.

And while the school is suspending students who vape, Green said they are not addressing the health issues that come along with heavy vaping, such as nicotine addiction.

“A big issue is if you get caught vaping, there is no real effort to stop the problem,” she said.

Districts across the state have begun to include e-cigarettes and other new-generation tobacco products in their tobacco-free school policies, but that’s voluntary on their part, said Bill DiSessa with the Michigan Department of Education.

Some districts, such as the Novi Community School District, have an outright ban on vaping, as does Lake Fenton High School, DiSessa said. Other districts are working to get on top of the problem and amend student code of conduct rules and include vaping education as part of a district’s health curriculum.

Marcia Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for the Birmingham School District, said the district is seeing incidents of vaping in its middle school population and is working with the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition to bring parent education programs to the community.

“We are working with the health curriculum, and we are hoping to add a segment in on this. We have not done it. We have to wait until the fall,” she said.

“... It went from something we had very little awareness of, to boom.”

In 2017, state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, sponsored a measure that would prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes and nicotine cartridges to minors as well as ban minors from possessing these objects, but the bill has not advanced.

Two years earlier, Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed e-cigarette legislation because it would not regulate and tax the devices like tobacco products.

“We need a Michigan law, and I think we are the last state not to pass this,” Jones said. “I’ve had many calls from schools. They are very upset. A school police officer from Oakland county areas told me we have kids smoking (vaping) in classrooms and in the bathroom. Kids putting marijuana in them.”

Harmful ingredients

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says scientists are still learning more about how e-cigarettes affect health, but there is enough evidence to justify efforts to prevent e-cigarette use by young people.

Vaping devices are like these made to resemble common items such as cell phones, ink pens, flash drives, and cosmetic containers.

The vapor from e-cigarettes contains harmful ingredients, including nicotine, CDC officials say. Nicotine exposure during adolescence can cause addiction and can harm the developing brain.

The U.S. surgeon general warns that e-cigarettes may contain other potentially harmful ingredients, including volatile organic compounds; heavy metals, such as nickel, lead and tin; ultrafine particles that could be inhaled deep into the lungs; and flavorants such as diacetyl, a chemical that has been linked to lung disease.

Parent Stephanie Van Daele is planning to attend a “vaping 101” session on May 29 through St. Joseph Mercy Health at Rochester Hills’ City Hall.

The mother of three says her family’s history of cigarette smoking has motivated her to learn as much as she can about vaping before it becomes a problem for her children, who attend Rochester Community Schools. She questioned why vaping companies used sweet-sounding flavors such as bubble gum and cotton candy that entice children to use their products.

“I don’t know what I am doing. I’m the first one to admit it,” Van Daele said of vaping. “I think my kids are getting bombarded by this stuff, and I have to get the right tools to fight this before it even happens.”

Judy Rubin with the Tri-Community Coalition, which works with schools in Berkley, Huntington Woods and Oak Park, said the coalition encourages parents to take the first step and talk to their child about vaping before it becomes a problem.

“Communication is paramount. Teens whose parents do talk to them about these difficult subjects tend to make better choices,” Rubin said.

Today’s teens are more health savvy and got the message about tobacco, Rubin said, but they continue to think e-cigarettes are different.

“They are not different. There is nicotine in a vaping device. They can put other things into it: marijuana concentrates, THC oils. It’s quite dangerous. It does get inhaled,” Rubin said.