In October of this year, the administration sent all parents an email asking them to discuss vaping — among other “risky behaviors” — with their students. According to the email, “We have heard increasing reports of Lakeside students vaping…on-campus, off-campus, and at home.” This was back when reports of vaping-related deaths were starting to emerge on the news. Soon, more and more cases began capturing our attention, and as of February, there have been sixty-eight confirmed deaths in the United States. Washington has had two deaths and twenty-seven cases, five of whom were under the age of twenty.
Ever since their introduction, e-cigarettes and vaping devices have been touted as a healthier alternative to tobacco cigarettes. Instead of directly inhaling smoke, users inhale the vapor from the devices, potentially avoiding the harmful side effects of cigarette smoking (such as lung cancer). The rise in popularity of vaping devices, especially Juuls, has created a spike in young e-cigarette users from 1.5% in 2011 to 24% in 2018. Given this spike— as well as the increased attention being paid to teen vaping— we decided to investigate the vaping situations both at schools in the general Seattle area and at Lakeside itself.
The Greater Seattle Area
“One girl in my physics class buys Juul pods for younger kids, but she doesn’t buy them for freshmen and under because she has ‘morals,’” said one Garfield student, when asked about vaping at her school. According to her, vaping in the bathrooms is a common occurrence that she herself has witnessed. People aren’t reported, she says, because it’s common and “no one cares,” not even, she believes, the teachers. “Also if they try to crack down on it, it usually becomes a racial issue— the administration would be more likely to punish POC,” she added.
According to a Shorecrest High School student, the most popular spots for vaping on campus are the girls’ third floor bathroom and the South Woods of Hamlin Park, the large forest adjacent to the school. Under the shroud of tall pine trees, it’s easy to obscure the fruity-smelling wisps of vape clouds, among other substances. “I’ve never been there myself, but during lunch that’s where people go to do pretty much anything illegal,” she said. “I witness people vaping in the third floor bathroom anytime I go in there.” The South Woods is a place universally acknowledged among Scots as the place where things happen. “If you ask anyone at Shorecrest, they’ll tell you that’s where things will go down.”
At Shorewood, bathrooms are similarly very common vaping spost, as are locker rooms. “These are the only two places without cameras,” one student noted. However, she commented that students also occasionally vape in classrooms. “Teachers definitely care,” she said, “but students who do it are slick, so the teachers don’t notice.” No one reports on their classmates at Shorewood either— “snitches get stitches,” she said— but the school has a drug counselor that students can approach themselves. She helps kids who have used drugs and offers them support. While she herself has never met with this counselor, our interviewee said that she knows people who have, and they seem to really like her. “There are a lot of drugs at our school,” she concluded. “Mostly just nicotine, alcohol, and weed, but it honestly doesn’t feel like a big deal.”
When asked how easy it is to vape while in class, one Lakesider recounted an experience with a friend in church, saying, “[My friend] was able to blow the smoke in a certain direction so that nobody would smell it, and it’s like you can barely even see the smoke. It nearly looks like air, so nobody knew she was vaping in the church, and the only reason I knew is because I saw her take out the vape pen. Yeah, so you can easily get by vaping in class without anyone knowing.”
While our Shorewood source estimated that about 37% of students at her school had tried vaping before, our Bush interviewee gave a much larger percentage of “definitely” 50-75%. When asked whether the school has made efforts to stop vaping, our source said that, although the dangers of vaping are discussed in health class, students are stealthy enough that “they’re not constantly getting busted, so there’s not really much that the teachers/administration can do about it.” She then added that “they can warn people about it as much as they want, but the bottom line is that unless they catch someone actively vaping, they can’t really make any kind of difference in people’s behaviors (and even punishing them when they are caught hasn’t proven to be super effective in the past).” Punishing students, she believed, wouldn’t make them stop vaping, only hide it better. Ultimately, she concluded, “It’s really not something that schools have control over.”
When asked about the administration’s level of knowledge on student vaping, Ms. Wilks reported that, “I don’t think we are well-informed.” This, she said, was troubling, adding that “the terrible thing about vaping is that it is designed to be difficult to detect.” (Juuls are meant to be discreet: dark in color, slim, small, and easy to conceal beneath a sleeve or even in hand.) Ms. Wilks cited an article that stated that 27.5% of surveyed high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the past month. “I hope our student numbers are nowhere near that high,” said Ms. Wilks. “If I had to guess, it would be that between 5-10% of LS students have tried vaping and that fewer than that (I hope) have continued to vape and even fewer have violated the Community Expectations and vaped on campus.”
Based on our anonymous vaping poll, Ms. Wilks’ guess is an underestimate. 21.8% of the over-two-hundred respondents reported having vaped before, most using Juul. Of the students who have vaped before, the majority said that they vape incidentally or on occasion, and several said that they had only vaped once to try it. Only three students indicated vaping every day, the same number that reported having vaped on campus— this excludes the two respondents who said they vaped “crack cocaine” and “black tar heroin” and started vaping “at birth” or in “kindergarten.” Disregarding similar joke answers, no students reported having vaped in a classroom or otherwise very public space.
According to the poll, 60% of students who vape use marijuana via a dab pen. Dab pens are vapes that contain THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. We interviewed a junior, Emma*, on her experiences with dab pens: “I had a dab pen for a while. I don’t have it anymore because I realized it was getting out of control,” she said. “A lot of my use was just in my room, alone at home, so there wasn’t anything to stop me doing it. And I kept telling myself, ‘You can’t get addicted to weed,’ but you really can.” Though Marijuana is widely considered to be less addictive than other substances such as nicotine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 30% of people who use marijuana have some degree of dependency on it, and those who start using it under 18 are seven times more likely to develop a dependency than adults.
Emma never used nicotine, just marijuana. “To quit using [marijuana] carts, a lot of people will just start Juuling more, and I’m really not trying to get addicted to nicotine as a replacement,” she explained. She said that she would vape socially, but in those situations, she was usually the one who provided products. “When I had a dab pen, I was the supplier. That’s the Lakeside thing, my friend group has all done stuff, but we were talking the other day, and they were all like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve never actually bought anything.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s because I give it to you.’” She also described her friends’ reaction to her vaping habits, saying, “It took me so long to realize that I was addicted to it because I just didn’t talk to anyone at Lakeside about how frequently I was using. My friends would be like, ‘On a school night? Really, Emma?’ I just kind of hid it from them. Not purposefully, but I just wouldn’t talk about it.”
The actual number of students at Lakeside who have vaped before is unknown, but Emma said that it’s “more than you think. A lot of people share one [vape pen] with their friends so they don’t own it 100% of the time, and I think that’s a really good policy to have for yourself.” Unlike other schools, Emma also noted that, since Lakeside has a zero-tolerance policy, vaping in the bathrooms doesn’t really occur. (Though one student reported having heard from a friend that someone during a summer school course was going to the bathroom to vape “at least somewhat regularly.”)
When asked how she obtained her vaping products, Emma said that “it’s really easy to get a dealer’s Snapchat. They’ll post all their stuff, and you just message them and ask them for it.” While many Lakesiders reported starting with the help of their friends, Emma said that she “didn’t have any friends who did it, so I was just kind of exploring on my phone, and I’d ask, ‘Where’d you get this from? Can I have their information?’” After adding the dealer on Snapchat, the buying became easy. “Even after having my pen for a long time, part of the thrill comes from buying the thing,” said Emma. “I have a rebellious instinct, I get the urge to do something bad. Buying it was part of the thrill. Especially the first time, I was really nervous, really suspicious, worried I was going to get caught. Now I’m just like, hey, can you come to my house in 10 minutes while my dad’s at the grocery store. Not anymore, because I’m sober, but you know.”
However, e-cigarettes, e-juice, Juul pods, and the like don’t exactly come cheap. “If you’re buying anything, it does have to be a conscious thing,” said Emma. “Because it’s your money, you have to physically hand over the cash to someone. And if you have a device, you keep having to buy stuff to use it. It’s not like you see a dealer once and that’s it, you have to keep buying more and more, and as you become dependent on it, you lose track on how much you’re actually spending.” In fact, the financial impact of Emma’s vaping was a large part of why she quit. “I was more like, ‘Okay, I don’t think it’s going to have an effect on my mental health, but I am losing so much money,’” she said. “Now that I’m not using, it makes me realize how muchーI mean, I would take [money] from my parents’ wallet.”
Responses in the poll indicated that about 11% of students who vape have parents who are aware of their vaping. In Emma’s case, she had some close calls with her parents. Though her mother has found her pens before, she has always been “able to lie my way out of it,” she said. “My sister didn’t know until a few weeks ago. I kind of just yelled at her, ‘You don’t even know how bad it is.’ She’s just like, ‘I just don’t understand why anyone would even want to try it.’ I was just like, Okay, that’s the last time I ever talk to you about anything.’” During a time when she was dealing with heavy depression, Emma said she “didn’t try to hide it, and my room smelled like weed twice in one week, and my parents were like, ‘Do we need to send you to rehab?’ and threatening it as this bad thing, when rehab is a really useful tool for some people, and they’re never gonna know the full extent [of the issue], because I’m never gonna share it with them.”
According to Emma, she doesn’t feel much support from other Lakeside students either when it comes to her struggles. “It’s hard when you feel like there’s no empathy in your community,” she said. “My friends are like, ‘Oh, you’re two weeks sober? What do you want? A medal?’ Actually, yeah, I do. It’s been hard as f***.”
When asked about strategies to discourage student vaping in the future, Ms. Wilks discussed plans to focus on education. “Our approach has been to provide information and education about the dangers of vaping directly to students and parents and guardians. Since it is hard to detect, we need to engage students directly so they are prepared to make good decisions about vaping and other dangerous activities or substances.” She also recognized the mental health effects of vaping and the potential substance abuse problems that arise with it. “We always encourage students to come to the counselors, their advisor, or any adult they trust if they need help. This includes if a student is struggling with substance abuse, including vaping,” she said. “Student health is most important.”
*Name has been changed for anonymity