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For N.H. High Schoolers, Vaping is a Hard Habit to Kick

Sarah Gibson for NHPR

Federal officials are still looking into the causes of vaping-related deaths around the country, but in New Hampshire, schools are continuing to see a surge in teenage vaping.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a quarter of high schoolers here are vaping at least occasionally. That’s nearly twice the national average. And schools and public health advocates are struggling to find a way to get teenagers to stop.

Laurie Warnock isn’t a smoker, but she spends a lot of time at vape shops to stay up to date in her job with the Northern New England Poison Center, training schools on the risks of e-cigarettes. 

Standing in front of a glass display case at a vape shop in Hooksett, she points to a small box with a photo of a sleek Juul vape.

“It’s packaged just like an iPhone, like a tech product. This is a charger port that goes into your USB port. And you can see where you can fit it into your sleeve or whatever. And that’s the whole magic right there,” she grimaces.

Users put e-liquids or "vape juices" into the device, which, when charged, turns that into a vapor to inhale. Warnock points to a wall of hundreds of e-liquids, displayed in colorful boxes with images of fruit, smoothies, and candies.

Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR
A bottle of e-liquid at a vape shop in Concord, with the new nicotine warning label on the front.

The e-liquid has a small label warning that it contains nicotine. The nicotine concentration levels for many of these products are high, which scientists warn poses a particular risk to developing teenage brains, where the dopamine reward for drugs can be more intense.

“The nicotine as an addictive chemical changes their brain in permanent ways that puts them at greater risk for other addictive behaviors as they get older,” Warnock explains.

Warnock acknowledges that vaping can be effective for adult smokers trying to quit tobacco products.

But some of the biggest vape product manufacturers - including Juul - are facing allegations they marketed to teenagers intentionally, turning a generation with historically low rates of tobacco use into a generation at greater risk for nicotine addiction.

A lot of this vaping is happening in schools. Students share vapes throughout the day, passing them in hallways or under bathroom stalls. Marissa McKay, a senior at Londonderry High School, says it’s hard to catch someone in a bathroom, unless you walk in and smell it.

“A lot of the time you go in the stall and you’re like ‘Mint!’,” she laughs. “You just know.”

McKay suspects many of her friends are addicted.

“Some people are going through a full pod a day and they’re like ‘I can stop any time I want,’ and I’m like, ‘No you can’t,'” she says.

To show just how much nicotine McKay’s friends may be consuming, her classmate Tim Gore pulls out an infographic he made for the school newspaper, showing a single Juul pod contains as much nicotine as a 20-pack of cigarettes.

Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR
An infographic by Londonderry highschooler Tim Gore for The Lancer Spirit's article on vaping.

Students on the newspaper staff are hoping this kind of information will make their peers think twice about vaping. And they say public health ads, including graphic images of lung damage, now flood their social media.

McKay says this kind of scare tactic might work, but also says high school is too late to target kids with these kinds of messages.

“People in middle school vape too,” says McKay. “It’s even bigger with the freshman class. So people need to start spreading information earlier - like 4th or 5th grade.”

Mary DeWinkeleer, an English and journalism teacher at Londonderry High School, says tackling vaping is an “uphill battle.”

Like most schools in New Hampshire, Londonderry is still working out how to discipline teens caught vaping. Last year, a student who got suspended for vaping was barred from extracurriculars for 180 days.

“It just kind of destroyed a kid,” DeWinkeleer says. “They did one stupid thing and now they’re out of the sport that may have been keeping them on track. So okay you’re suspended. What are you going to do? You’re going to sit at home and vape!”

With this in mind, Londonderry High School is now suspending students from their extracurriculars for just twenty days, and the district is working on a restorative justice policy that would balance learning with punishment after a student is caught with a vaping product.

Stephen Secor, the Assistant Principal at Londonderry High School, says the school wants to offer resources for addiction, but it needs the cooperation of families.

Credit Courtesy of Mary DeWinkeleer
Members of Londonderry High School's Lancer Spirit Newspaper staff, who have reported on vaping for the last two semesters. From left to right: Marissa McKay, Tim Gore, and Juliana Hamel.

“It’s unfortunately a rarity that students and parents will both concede to the fact that there’s an addiction issue there, which baffles me to some extent, because that isn’t going to extend their consequence," he says. "If anything, it will reduce it, and we’re here to offer services through the community.”

Around New Hampshire, schools’ discipline strategies vary widely. Some are installing vape sensors in bathrooms; others are issuing court citations or referring teens to drug and alcohol counselors.

And it’s getting more complicated, because schools this year are seeing more vapes with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

And even if schools find ways to decrease vaping during the school day, there are plenty of opportunities to vape elsewhere. In a parking lot next to Londonderry High School sits a cluster of cars, full of teens vaping after school.

In between taking puffs from a vape with Maui Waui (advertised for its “sweet Hawaiian pineapples” and “mountain-fresh strawberries”), they tell me the nicotine makes their head rush and limbs tingle, creating a strange combination of feeling alert but also calm.

Nick tells me he started as a freshman, around the same time Juul started marketing high-nicotine (“high-nic”) juices.

“I saw one of my older friends hitting one and I was curious so I asked to hit it,” he remembers. “It was the high-nic juices that put me on I guess.”

We’re not using Nick’s last name in this story because until recently, he wasn’t old enough to vape legally.

He and his friends say it’s easy to get vape products, either at a store that doesn’t card, from an older friend, or by dealing in private groups over the instant messenger app snap chat. 

Nick says he knows vaping isn’t good for him - he’s thinking about stopping, but not necessarily for health reasons.

“It kind of looks childish at some point because of all the young kids doing it,” he says. “I thought about that once I turned 18. I was like ‘man, there are a lot of young kids doing this.’”

Nick and his friends say they’re not ready to stop quite yet, but they plan to eventually.

More information and resources for adolescent vaping and tobacco use can be found at the N.H. DHHS website.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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