At the Thursday, Oct. 7, Polk County Community Connections meeting, there was a presentation on the use of e-cigarettes, which starts as early as third grade around the United States — statistics that have reached even into Polk County schools.
Humansville superintendent Tammy Erwin and Polk County Health Center public information officer Carol Bookhout led the presentation about the issue of vaping in local and nationwide school districts.
The information for their presentation was funded by a grant they submitted for “substance abuse prevention,” Bookhout said.
“It’s a substance, and it’s abused,” she said.
This issue, she explained, “directly affects schools and students in our schools and their families.”
An e-cigarette, she said, is a device which came from China to the United States.
In China, she explained, e-cigarettes were used almost medicinally, as they were “used under the direction of physicians to curb traditional smoking or eliminate it completely.”
When it transferred over to the U.S. in late 2006, the use of e-cigarettes morphed into recreational use.
“The manufacturers … were involved in bringing e-cigarettes over to the United States … without that medical guidance piece,” Bookhout said.
Additionally, the manufacturers “saw an opportunity to entice” youth, she said.
“In the last two weeks, these are vapes collected at Humansville,” Erwin said during her part of the presentation, holding up a few ziploc bags of e-cigarettes the district confiscated.
“We know for a fact that those who start smoking before the age of 21 are less likely to quit in their adult life,” Bookhout said, and these manufacturers know this — securing lifetime customers, a big monetary opportunity for them.
Erwin first talked about the bag of devices she pulled from Humansville Middle School kids.
Holding up one e-cigarette, she talked about how it looks like a flash drive and can fit easily in someone’s pocket. This version is typically around $8 in stores, she said, coming in flavors like “cake, ice cream, candy bar, peach, watermelon, Captain Crunch,” she said.
Initially, the flavors were designed as a marketing tool to encourage traditional smokers to try the e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking altogether, Bookhout said.
Instead of reaching adults, though, it was enticing youth — students still in high school, middle school and even elementary school.
Monetizing this, manufacturers added fun wrapping, making these e-cigarettes look like candy.
Erwin held up another device, phrasing the reviews she’s seen on this product as, “‘it doesn’t leak, it doesn’t smell like cigarette smoke — it just leaves that sweet smell in the air,’” she said. “‘Someone would never know I was vaping before I go to my next event,’” she said. “Those are the reviews.”
Bookhout explained how she has presented at other high schools before, mentioning to the students how the youth “were specifically targeted (by these companies) to start doing something that those companies knew was going to hurt them in the long run.”
With numerous chemicals — some cancer causing — the most prominent one is nicotine, Bookhout said.
Advertising for the e-cigarettes focused on saying they were a “safe alternative” to regular smoking, since they have no tobacco.
However, the addictive ingredient, nicotine, is still there.
It may be “safer,” but it’s not “safe,” Bookhout said.
On top of that, the chemicals involved in embalming, nail polish remover, paint thinners and fireworks are found in these devices, she said.
Erwin then explained another dilemma common for students.
“Back when I was in school,” she said, “if someone was smoking in the bathroom, everybody knew it. You could smell it, there was smoke — it was very easy.”
Students today choose a different method of vaping in order to avoid being caught simply due to the smoke — “they swallow it,” she said.
“These kids are swallowing everything that you should be exhaling — going further down into their lungs,” she said.
Next, she held up a bag from the elementary school, the crowd making surprised noises at the revelation of how young this issue begins.
Of the vapes in the bag, one had been confiscated from a third grader and one from a fourth grader.
She then held up the cartridge part of the vape, which she said can hold marijuana.
“One of those little pods,” Bookhout said, “is the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, and a lot of kids will smoke more than one pod a day.”
Erwin focused on the story of one student who is currently in eighth grade and experienced a drastic change in character.
“When he was in sixth grade, he was the kind of kid who wasn’t afraid to still hug people,” she said. “Just a happy, happy, go-lucky kid.”
He was active in sports and had good grades, she added.
She said when he started seventh grade, he was the same way, but around Christmastime “we just saw this change — completely different kid — moody, irritated, disrespectful.”
She said he wasn’t even the same person. He lost weight, his color changed, and he was getting referrals at school.
By the end of the year, Erwin said they caught him with a vape at school.
This year, she said, he’s been caught having a vape three times — just from the start of school in August.
She said that when asked what was going on with him, he said, “‘I can’t stop; I cannot quit. I get caught with them at school because if I try to go a whole day without it at school, that’s when I get in trouble.’”
Bookhout also discussed how youth still have developing brains, so introducing a drug like nicotine into their systems while the brain is developing requires the brain to wire around it.
Once their brains have developed around that chemical, taking that chemical away will be next to impossible.
For an adult, processes like concentration, self-regulation, controlling emotions and memory have all been developed, she said. Adding nicotine to an adult’s already-developed brain will be easier to stop down the road.
That’s why, if students start smoking before 25, those processes don’t function correctly without nicotine as they develop.
That’s when Erwin mentioned the development side of the brain, and how the kid in the example is not lying — he really can’t stop.
The district had put up new cameras around the school for better security, and she said this specific kid had been seen going into the bathroom “six times between 8 and 11 (a.m.)” the day he was caught with his third vape.
She mentioned how some parents don’t even know what their children are doing until the school brings it up to them.
That’s when Erwin said the first step is just to talk about it.
She then said, for the eighth grader, when he comes back from suspension, he’s going to be talking with Erwin, the school resource officer, the Polk County juvenile officer and his mom about how they can help him.
The school can do what it can during school hours, but the rest of the day is out of its hands. That’s when she encouraged the community to help outside of school.
Bookhout said there has been a decline in e-cigarette use, but it’s still prevalent.
According to a CDC and USFDA study, more than two million sixth to 12th graders vape currently.
The most popular of the devices are disposable — for the convenience and the sneaky tactic of getting rid of them.
She explained the health consequences include severe lung injuries, some of which have caused death in those under 18.
When she goes around to talk to youth at schools, “we base our information on accurate facts,” which they don’t add or take away from. The students are also encouraged to study the topic on their own time.
She continued her presentation to talk about treatments available for kids — of which nicotine patches are not.
Instead, the focus turns to behavior modification.
There are available programs like Community Partnerships of the Ozarks, the Springfield Area Vape Education program, Truth Initiative and CATCH My Breath. Then apps on phones are also helpful.
“But it is so difficult,” she said, reminding the community that this isn’t an easy fix. It will require work.
She then encouraged the community to start promoting the state of Missouri to adopt a law, making 21 years old the age people can purchase tobacco products. The age limit is currently at 18.