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Dan Ross is the principal of Woodland Junior-Senior High School in Baileyville in Washington County.
Last month, I was asked if I thought tobacco use, and vaping in particular, was impacting my students and our school environment. As I started to reply, I realized how incredibly frustrated and angry I am.
The short answer is that vaping is all over the place in schools. I now have more kids who are vaping than I have who don’t. And that’s junior high and high school combined. I have kids who are vaping right in class. Some people say they’re just doing it to get a rise out of their teachers. But the reality is, they’re doing it because they’re addicted to nicotine.
The kids who are a bit more reserved will ask to go out to the bathroom. They’re not using the bathroom; they’re using the vape pen. Then they lose a significant amount of time because they’re out of class, sometimes more than once a period. There are some students who leave during every period. That’s a lot of lost instruction time and a significant distraction to others, and to their own learning.
I now get requests from parents, asking us to write in breaks during the day so their child can go outside and vape, which is not allowed on school grounds anyway. It’s incredible that we’re at the point where parents are making these requests because they’re recognizing the fact that their kids are so addicted. Some kids are just staying home on purpose, because they know they can’t get through the day without leaving and taking that nicotine break.
I have kids that don’t even bother to try out for sports. They know that they’re going to be huffing and puffing and won’t be able to keep up after the first 10 or 15 minutes of practice. And I have kids that have that popcorn lung effect. It’s just so sad to see.
Tobacco use is disruptive to the school day, disruptive to student attendance, and disruptive to our kids’ health. Something else that I don’t think gets talked about much is that vape pen sharing contributes to the spread of illness, including COVID. People aren’t talking about that and it’s really serious.
The number of different flavors available to cover up the taste and all the chemicals that are in these things is completely irresponsible, in my opinion. I see so much menthol and mint, plus a crazy assortment of candy and dessert flavors. A lot of kids think it’s just flavoring, but 99 percent of e-cigarettes contain nicotine.
Tobacco companies don’t care about our kids — they are targeting our kids. That’s because the brains of teenagers and young adults are still developing and are much more susceptible to nicotine addiction. They target our kids with menthol to hide the taste and harshness, with cheaper prices in low-income communities, and with advertising images that create a whole culture around tobacco.
I recently read that four out of five kids who have ever used tobacco started with a flavored product. Based on what I’m seeing, that might be an understatement.
In Maine, one in three high school students now uses some form of tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Here in Washington County, we’ve got the highest youth smoking rate in Maine — 12 percent of our high school students smoke cigarettes.
There is no e-cigarette that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help smokers quit, but there’s plenty of data showing that vaping increases the likelihood that kids will turn to cigarettes, and smoke even more than if they hadn’t started with vaping.
What’s happening to our kids and our schools is catastrophic and heartbreaking. Unless something is done now, an entire generation of kids is going to pay a very high price. Nicotine is impacting their health and ability to learn, which will ultimately strip them of job prospects and their opportunities to be productive members of their communities.
Ask any school principal and they’ll tell you a similar story. We can’t fight the tobacco industry on our own. We need help from the people who make the laws and regulate dangerous, deadly products. I hope Maine lawmakers will hear us and help us, so we can help our students.
Let’s start by getting rid of flavored tobacco. There is a bill in the legislature right now ( LD 1550) that will do just that. Let’s also do everything we can to make sure the kids who are already addicted can get help quitting and staying tobacco-free. We owe them nothing less.