Students congregating in bathrooms. Strange devices found on school grounds. Property damage. Do these situations sound familiar? Pre-pandemic—years before, actually—these scenarios were commonplace, with tackling youth vaping topping the “to-do” lists for many school administrators. But when COVID-19 struck, priorities shifted to more pressing matters—resuming in-person learning with the least amount of risk of spreading this deadly virus.
So, after more than a year of a pandemic and social distancing, has youth vaping been extinguished? Not exactly.
“I am concerned that what we saw pre-pandemic is making a comeback,” says Brent Conway, assistant superintendent of Pentucket Regional School District based in West Newbury, MA. “I’m worried that we may have let our guard down.”
Familiarize yourself with the latest vaping trends, research, and lessons learned from school administrators to ensure your guard is up for the school year ahead.
National E-Cigarette Unit Sales Are at an All-time High
Many hoped e-cigarette use would drop after the EVALI—e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury—outbreak in April 2019, as well as school and store closures caused by the pandemic. However, CDC Foundation research reveals the opposite is true.
In its May 2021 “National Trends” data brief report, the CDC Foundation says, “As of May 16, 2021, estimated national e-cigarette unit sales were at the highest levels ever recorded … (22.03 million units) since the introduction of e-cigarettes to the market (previous high was 21.99 million units in August 2019).”2
Unit sales increased by 48.9 percent from February 2020 to May 20213—despite the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) enforcement policies banning menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars, and flavored pre-filled cartridges in e-cigarettes, like JUUL and Vuse.2,5
More Than 3 Million U.S. Youth Used E-Cigarettes in 2020; Product Use Shifted
Roughly 3.6 million U.S. youth reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days in 2020, a decline from 5.4 million in 2019, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS).3,6 The survey also found that among youth:4,7
- Pre-filled cartridges remained the most commonly used product type
- Disposable e-cigarette use surged, with a 1,000% usage increase among high school students and 400% among middle school students
- 8 in 10 students reported using flavored e-cigarettes
- Fruit- and mint-flavored e-cigarettes remained popular
- The use of menthol-flavored e-cigarettes increased
Because the human brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25,4 the health risks of vaping for those in their formative years are many. Aside from damaging lung health, vaping can also affect school performance, impair driving ability, and put youth at a higher risk of addiction. In fact, the NYTS survey reported “disturbingly high rates of frequent nicotine and daily e-cig use [that] suggest strong nicotine dependence.”6
School Administrators’ Stories: Prevention Strategies That Can Help Curb Vaping in Schools
No one intervention can eliminate youth vaping in schools. Instead, it’s a multifaceted approach that may be comprised of:
- Detection to deter the behavior
- Disciplinary measures for engaging in this unwanted behavior, like citation, suspension, and/or community service
- Education and support to help students quit
For Timothy McMahon, principal of North Middlesex Regional High School in Townsend, MA, vape detectors by the company Zeptive (zeptive.com/vape-detector) were installed in all bathrooms—ground zero for vaping. Unlike other vape detectors, Zeptive units are unique in that they are battery-operated and not hardwired to the wall, meaning they can be moved from place to place. When nicotine or THC is detected, the device sends an e-mail or text alert to staff. “We wanted to deter the behavior of vaping on school property,” McMahon says. “And it’s working. Fewer kids are vaping now because the sensors are working so well. But we know our job’s not done.”
For Bryan Corrigan, assistant principal of Melrose High School in Melrose, MA, vaping wasn’t an isolated problem among a specific demographic of students. “It transcended all of that,” he says. Pre-pandemic, there was a high use of both nicotine and marijuana vapes in the bathrooms, making some non-smoking students uncomfortable using them during the day. Vape detectors were installed to help free up teachers serving as bathroom “monitors.” “We noticed almost immediately that the bathrooms were empty,” Corrigan says.
But that’s not the case for Pentucket Regional School District Assistant Superintendent Brent Conway. While the levels are nowhere near where they were in 2018, Conway says that student vaping has crept up, with an estimated five incidents reported a week. “Come springtime, kids were bringing them into school again,” Conway says. “They’re sharing vapes outside and in the bathroom. I thought this was behind us.” Vape detectors are installed in some of the bathrooms, and students have unsuccessfully tried to tamper with them. “Never underestimate the ingenuity of a motivated teen,” Conway adds.
He believes students vape for various reasons—to relieve stress, be socially accepted, or because they genuinely believe a health risk will never happen to them. And flavored vapes make smoking deliciously fun. “Vaping is just not scary to kids,” Conway says. “There’s nothing scary about cherry pie. I fear [vaping] is going to come back a lot stronger than we are prepared for.”
For the health and safety of all students and their families, let’s make sure that’s not the case.
Kristin Erekson Barton, MA, CHES, is a certified health education specialist with more than 10 years of writing, editing, and communication experience. She holds a master’s in health communication and a bachelor’s in journalism, specializing in health literacy and plain language writing. Cindy Bistany, DHSc, is the chief technology officer of Zeptive, an IoT sensing business focused on safety, security, and public health applications. She is an expert in lab and field detection and holds a master’s of science in chemistry and a doctorate of health science.
Sidebar: Vape Trends: Stats to Know
- 221.9 million – Units of e-cigarette products sold in U.S. retail stores nationwide, a 173.7% increase from 20151
- 3.6 million – The number of U.S. youth who reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days7
- 1,000% – The increase in disposable e-cigarette use among high schoolers7
- 400% – The increase in disposable e-cigarette use among middle schoolers7
- 38.9% – Frequent high school e-cigarette users who vaped 20 or more days in the past 30 days7
- 22.5% – Frequent high school e-cigarette users who use e-cigarettes daily7
- 8 in 10 – Students who reported using flavored e-cigarettes7
- CDC Foundation. (n.d.) Monitoring E-Cigarette Use Among Youth. Retrieved from cdcfoundation.org/programs/monitoring-e-cigarette-use-among-youth
- CDC Foundation. (2021). Monitoring U.S. e-cigarette sales: national trends. Retrieved from cdcfoundation.org/National-E-CigaretteSales-DataBrief-2021-May16?inline
- CDC Newsroom. (2020, September 9). Youth e-cigarette use is down, but 3.6 million still use e-cigarettes. Retrieved from cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/p0909-youth-e-cigarette-use-down.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019, December 02). E-Cigarettes: Talk to youth about the risks. Retrieved from cdc.gov/tobacco/features/back-to-school/e-cigarettes-talk-to-youth-about-risks/index.html
- Kreslake J.M., Simard, B.J., O’Connor, K.M., Patel, M., Vallone, D.M., Hair, E.C. (2021, June). E-cigarette use among youths and young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic: United States, 2020. American Journal of Public Health, 111(6), 1132-1140. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2021.306210.
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2021, April 29). FDA commits to evidence-based actions aimed at saving lives and preventing future generations of smokers. Retrieved from fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-commits-evidence-based-actions-aimed-saving-lives-and-preventing-future-generations-smokers
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2020, December 22). Youth tobacco use: results from the National Youth Tobacco Survey. Retrieved from fda.gov/tobacco-products/youth-and-tobacco/youth-tobacco-use-results-national-youth-tobacco-survey