Vaping and other substance use sweep the culture of UAHS
by Dylan Carlson Sirvent, Katherine Dominek and Sophie Yang, ’19
Last year during spring break, senior John* and his family decided to go on vacation out-of-state. That meant he couldn’t bring his Juul along—he didn’t want to get caught. As days passed without access to his vape pod, what was supposed to be a relaxing break from school instead became a miserable one.
“[There was] the really fun part of vacation, but then damn, I really want[ed] my Juul,” John said.
This wasn’t just about wanting to Juul, he said. It was something much more serious: withdrawal. John’s senior year, which he said has been his most stressful so far, has only made him more dependent on vaping.
“I treat it as a way to reward myself,” John said. “I’ll pressure myself to finish homework and then I can vape. Or I’ll leave my vape in my car when I go to work. I’ll use it as something to keep me going.”
For the last decade, high schools had been winning the fight against smoking. From 2011 to 2018, according to the CDC, cigarette smoking among high schoolers decreased by 16 percent—from 1 in 10 to 2 in 25.
But as teen use of traditional cigarettes waned, a new technology was on the rise: e-cigarettes. These are battery-operated devices that heat nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals into a water vapor which is to be inhaled. Since nicotine is extracted from the tobacco plant, health agencies regard e-cigarettes as tobacco products. Due to the growing prevalence of vaping, tobacco use among high schoolers has changed little since 2011, even as use of traditional cigarettes and cigars have fallen off.
In 2018, according to the CDC, nearly 1 in 5 high schoolers reported vaping in the previous 30 days and there are no signs that e-cigarette use among teenagers will be slowing any time soon.
As ingrained as e-cigarette use now is among high schoolers, it is easy to forget just how new this technology is. E-cigarettes were not introduced to the United States until 2007. And the Juul was first released through Pax Labs in 2015. It wasn’t until 2017 that Juul Labs was founded. But just a year later, they had 68 percent of the e-cigarette market share and were worth $15 billion.
In 2018, 11 U.S. Senators including Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown penned an open letter to the CEO of Juul Labs, Kevin Burns, accusing him and his company of “putting an entire new generation of children at risk of nicotine addiction.”
John admits he has a nicotine addiction. He’s tried to quit before, but said it’s hard to escape the culture of substance use at UAHS.
“Everywhere you go, there’s someone [vaping],” John said. “There’s such an influence to do it.”
In a recent voluntary Arlingtonian survey of 234 students, about 82 percent said they had seen another student vape since the start of the school year.
Nicotine consumption from vaping is now the second most prevalent form of substance use among teenagers, falling behind only to alcohol, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
And though drinking alcohol is still visible at UAHS, vaping is more so. Only 62 percent of students who responded to the Arlingtonian survey said they had seen another student drink alcohol since the start of the school year, a 20-point drop from those who said they had seen another student vape.
“Just stand at the intersection of Northwest and Zollinger and see how many kids have a Juul in their mouths,” John said.
There lies another trend beneath the rise of vaping among high school students: more and more middle schoolers are also starting to use nicotine.
According to the CDC, from 2011 to 2018, e-cigarette use among middle schoolers increased eightfold—from 0.6 percent to 4.9 percent.
“I think 8th grade was a big switch in our class,” said freshman Paul Renner, who attended Jones Middle School. “So many people that I know have been getting involved in it. I know I don’t know everyone, but it feels like more and more people are doing it.”
Jones Middle School principal Jason Fine wrote in an email interview that up until last year he had experienced zero instances of students using illicit substances.
John, who said he did not start using substances until the end of his sophomore year, said he thinks students are now encountering substances at younger ages than before.
“My [underclassman] brother tells me stories, and I’m like ‘How?’ I’m a senior and I haven’t done that,” John said.
Renner said he thinks some upperclassmen have played key roles in influencing underclassmen to use substances.
“There are a few upperclassmen that help the freshmen make bad decisions,” Renner said. “I know of people who buy their drugs and alcohol from upperclassmen.”
Freshman Godiva Regan said she knows of peers who began using substances after hanging out with current seniors this past summer.
But Renner said substance use among underclassmen is an issue. He said since many students receive allowances from their parents, they’re often given the freedom to purchase whatever they want with few consequences. Regan also said money played a role in allowing students to purchase substances or devices they would otherwise not be able to get.
“[It] makes sense how these kids could get ahold of [these substances] because they clearly have the money to. Some of them have very, very fortunate families,” Regan said. “I feel like they just take advantage of [their wealth] and it’s something that shouldn’t be taken advantage of like that.”
John said he’s bought e-cigarettes from a Columbus-area vape store without having to show any form of ID. He said all he needed was enough money.
“If they know you’re underage, they’ll overcharge you,” John said. “That’s why I stopped going to that place. I was spending all my money.”
He said he was typically up-charged by $5. The exact amount varied depending on how much he purchased. Another student source said her younger sibling, an underclassman, also purchased e-cigarettes from the same store.
Jon Rice, the student resource officer at UAHS, said he had heard similar allegations about this store and had since notified the Franklin County Task Force, which works with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to investigate the store’s business practices. Rice also said he had reported a Columbus-area convenience store for selling alcohol to minors.
Both stores are not named because as of the time of writing, Arlingtonian has been unable to secure any official documents confirming investigations into these stores or any confirmation of selling illicit substances to minors, aside from accounts given by students and Rice.
On Dec. 18, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams declared vaping a youth epidemic. But as a trend that has spread largely through social media, some UAHS students also see vaping as an extension of meme culture.
“I think some people vape as a kind of joke,” freshman Meredith Bailey said. “They play it off like, ‘Oh, look at me. I’m Juuling. I’m vaping.’”
John said in social situations, vaping is commonplace.
“[Vaping] looks cool. Everyone talks about it. It’s kind of like the vibe,” he said. “If you’re all hanging out and no one’s vaping or no one’s smoking [marijuana], then it’s kind of like ‘What are you doing?”
But Renner said although he has been offered e-cigarettes, he has never felt pressured into using any illicit substance.
“As far as the peer pressure goes [or like] ‘you’re not cool unless you do this,’ I haven’t gotten any of that. My friends have been pretty relaxed about that,” Renner said.
Bailey, who attended middle school outside of Ohio, said social media exposed her and her classmates to vaping in 8th grade.
“I never saw it until people started making memes about it online, posting it on their story,” Bailey said.
John said social media is exposing students to substances in ways previous generations have not been.
“People put stuff on their story all the time,” John said. “They think it’s cool because they see it on Instagram.”
Without social media, vaping would not be as prevalent among teenagers, Bailey said.
A 2018 CNN investigation found that Juul Labs had been encouraging and at times paying social media users with thousands of followers to promote their products.
But Juul Labs’ paid influencer program, according to a statement emailed to CNN from company spokeswoman Victoria Davis, was short-lived and paid fewer than ten influencers who were all smokers or former smokers and 28 years old or older.
The company still engaged on social media in other ways, commenting on posts, offering discounts on products, using popular hashtags and reposting photos of Juuls taken by other users, according to CNN.
According to one study published in the medical journal BMJ last May, the number of Juul-related tweets in 2017 was 17 times the number in 2016, rising from roughly 20,000 to 350,000 tweets. Another study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in November estimated that 25 percent of users who retweeted content from Juul Labs on Twitter were under 18.
Many anti-smoking groups pointed to Juul Labs’ social media presence as the root cause of why so many teenagers were using their products. With increasing pressure from the FDA, Juul Labs shut down their official Instagram account on Nov. 13, 2018.
On Twitter, their last post dates to Dec. 18, 2018 and is in regard to youth usage of e-cigarettes. The account continues to reply to tweets, most of which are complaints from users about their pods leaking.
The hashtag Juul remains popular on Instagram and Twitter with regular posts ranging from memes to reviews to videos of people blowing smoke rings.
Citing the skyrocketing popularity of e-cigarettes, the FDA announced in November a slew of proposals targeting gas stations, convenience stores, online stores and the use of social media influencers by vaping companies.
But this backlash has caught adult smokers trying to quit through e-cigarettes and law-abiding vape stores in the crosshairs, said James Jarvis, president of the Ohio Vapor Trade Association.
Jarvis also owns Vapor Station, a chain of vape stores with five locations in Central Ohio. He cited the FDA crack-down on e-cigarettes and negative media reports as having cast a dark light over his business and the vaping industry as a whole.
Although he rarely vapes, Jarvis said the reason he chose to invest in the vaping industry is personal—at age 16, he watched his grandmother die from lung cancer.
“I watched her take her last breath,” Jarvis said. “I always had that in the back of my mind.”
In 2008, Jarvis and his friend, who he said quit smoking traditional cigarettes eight months after taking up an e-cigarette, started Vapor Station.
Jarvis said anyone who walks into his stores is asked for an ID. His stores’ websites have big, black warnings—This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical—and his stores do not carry any Juul products.
Jarvis also said any member of the Ohio Vapor Trade Association must have a sign explicitly stating that service will not be provided to those under 18 or 21 depending on the store’s location. In Upper Arlington and Columbus, only those over 21 can buy an e-cigarette.
Evolved Vapors, located in Grandview, is a member of the Ohio Vapor Trade Association and has such a sign by its register.
“We don’t play any games here,” said Josh Norris, 27, an employee at Evolved Vapors.
Jarvis said he doesn’t understand why so many underage teenagers are trying to get their hands on e-cigarettes.
“If you’re not old enough, why are you messing with them anyway?” Jarvis said.
He added that the Ohio Vapor Trade Association has discussed the possibility of working with health organizations to bring vaping prevention programs to central Ohio high schools.
UAHS Principal Andrew Theado said the administration is hoping to implement a vaping prevention program next year as an alternative disciplinary route for those caught using e-cigarettes.
As of Feb. 13, the sites of several local vape stores and their sale portals could be accessed on school-issued laptops on UAHS internet.
In December 2018, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found e-cigarette use nationwide had soared to a record high of 37 percent among high school seniors while alcohol use had fallen to a low: only 17 percent of seniors reported having been drunk in the past month compared to 26 percent in 2013.
But this does not mean alcohol is out of the picture. In Arlingtonian’s survey, 3 in 5 students reported seeing a student drink alcohol since August. And Rice said there have been instances this year of students coming to school drunk.
Senior Ben*, who first started drinking alcohol sophomore year with his sports team, said students are typically not bothered by potential consequences.
“I feel like Upper Arlington fosters a culture where being as privileged as we are, people are less scared of getting in trouble,” Ben said.
Ben said even when students face repercussions for their actions, they are not particularly impacting.
“I’ve seen people put on probation but seven months and they’re off,” Ben said. “It’s not terrible.”
Renner said even if parents are against their children drinking alcohol, the consequences they face are typically minor.
“The majority of [freshmen I know] the parents try to get them to stop,” Renner said. “But I think when it’s alcohol, it’s just a little slap on the wrist. [Parents] tell [their children] to stop, but they don’t really care that much.”
John said discipline like suspension is particularly ineffective.
“I think suspensions are one of the stupidest things there are,” John said. “People literally just go home and then sometimes kids’ parents don’t care.”
Theado said he agreed on the ineffectiveness of suspensions and said that is why the administration stresses rehabilitation and counseling.
Ben said his parents, like the parents of his friends, became more lenient with his alcohol consumption as he grew older.
“There were a couple months where I got in trouble,” Ben said. “Then [my parents] saw more people doing it and being safe with it. I don’t really hide it now, I just tell my parents I’m going out. There’s a mutual understanding.”
Ben said he and his parents did not reach an agreement on alcohol use until the spring of his junior year.
“When I was sneaking around my parents I felt like I wasn’t being safe,” Ben said. “Now I can tell them more of what’s going on.”
But Theado offers caution. He said that parents who are aware of underage alcohol-use at a party their child is hosting are liable for any injuries or incidents that may occur. And this year, Rice said, several underage students—not necessarily from UAHS—have been prosecuted for having parties in Upper Arlington with alcohol.
Ben said he drinks more now than when he was a sophomore as more parents trust their children to stay home alone where most parties with alcohol occur.
“When it’s a larger party, I think the parents tend to be away,” Renner said. “But sometimes people try to sneak things under their noses. I heard about one party where the parents were home and [the students] still consumed alcohol.”
Renner said freshmen are generally discreet about any substance use. Still, Renner and Bailey said they thought alcohol use among freshmen was normalized in Upper Arlington.
“Once things get normalized, it’s not as big of a deal,” Bailey said.
She said freshmen she was familiar with had stolen alcohol from parents’ cabinets to drink at parties.
“[They] don’t have to do anything to get it,” Bailey said.
John said he gave alcohol to his brother, an underclassman, but stopped around August.
“It’s only certain nights,” John said. “But I feel like I know my brother and I know what’s best for him. I’ll step in if he has a problem.”
John said his friends purchase alcohol from local stores using fake IDs ordered online. Several fake ID purchasing websites were accessible from school-issued laptops on UAHS internet as of Feb. 11.
“All you need is a place to ship it to and [money],” John said. “Online, they cut down the price a lot. They just go big group and get a bunch of fakes.”
Although John himself does not have a fake ID, he has gone to stores and purchased alcohol with his friends who do. Before entering a store, John said the group will look at the clerks and make a judgement on whether they can get away with buying alcohol from them.
“If it doesn’t look like someone who’s chill, they don’t go to them,” John said.
Ben said most alcohol is purchased by peers with fake IDs.
“It’s not the classic ‘go to your older brother,’” Ben said.
In 2011, the concerns of a possible increase in heroin usage at UAHS prompted Arlingtonian to investigate the culture surrounding the illicit substance. What followed was “Heroin in High School,” an in-depth story highlighting the effects of heroin on the student body and administration.
Approximately 0.5 percent of individuals aged 12-17 used heroin in 2011, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
In Arlingtonian’s survey, since the start of the school year, approximately 48 percent of students have witnessed a student use marijuana and 8 percent have witnessed a student use cocaine. Only about 2 percent have seen another student use heroin.
The NIH’s 2018 Monitoring the Future survey showed opioid abuse at record lows. In 2018, only 0.2 percent of 10th graders and 0.4 percent of 12th graders used heroin nationally.
With a decline in heroin usage, cocaine has budded as a new hard drug of choice and marijuana usage has become a visible trend.
Rice said he has seen an increase in the number of e-cigarettes with THC oil, the primary active compound found in marijuana. Last year he had none, but this year several THC pens have been confiscated from students using them at school.
“Our ultimate goal is to help students,” Theado said. “There are consequences for behaviors but the consequences are designed to help teach behaviors.”
Jones Middle School principal Jason Fine said to counteract substance use at the middle school level, the school invited the STAND Project—a local nonprofit made to educate parents on teen substance use—to speak to students.
“We also cover this topic in our health curriculum and we try to maintain a presence on our school social media accounts,” Fine said over email.
Sonya North, executive director of the STAND Project, said they run social media accounts, send a monthly newsletter and manage a high school outreach group. They recently released a six-part video series on vaping that was shared with parents and guardians via email by the district on Jan. 27.
The series features UA administrators like Theado and Fine as well as a local medical expert discussing topics ranging from teen brain development to medical risks of e-cigarette usage.
While the STAND video series was geared toward parents, Hastings Middle School principal Robb Gonda believes that providing students with information about the risks of drug use and decision making tools is necessary for prevention.
“This is also coupled with being vigilant, having positive relationships with students and listening when students bring a concern to any adult in the building,” Gonda said over email.
While junior Cass Turner finds that education on this matter is necessary, she said it may be more beneficial for students to meet with those who have struggled with substance abuse.
“Education for me is key,” Turner said. “In my own personal experience, the more I know the better my decisions have been. So I think for some people it would be really helpful to have someone come in to just be like, ‘Hey, this is my experience and I think you can benefit from learning about my experience.’”
John said he thought the administration’s presentations on substance use sometimes had an opposite effect on students.
“It was always the same thing. ‘Drugs are bad, alcohol is bad,’” John said. “They just make you want to do it even more.”
Renner also said he found the administration’s efforts had little effect.
“I think kids still do what they want,” Renner said.
Theado cites these sentiments as to why there have been fewer town hall meetings.
Turner said she would like to see changes moving forward.
“Everyone knows it. We all know people vape. We all know people do drugs. It’s not a secret. It’s just one of those things the administration could just be more open with ourselves and our parents and give us the tools to help each other.”