Schools search for solutions as vaping blows up among high school athletes

A teen is seen vaping on a tennis court. (Photo courtesy Gilang Widiatmaja/Getty Images)

The rising popularity of vaping with electronic cigarettes is damaging the careers of young athletes, especially in high school, by ruining their health and landing them in trouble with schools.

As the number of students who damage their health by using e-cigarettes surges, schools are searching for a way to stop students, including athletes, from ruining their health and future.

Many e-cigarette cartridges contain approximately the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, according to the anti-smoking organization, Truth Initiative. The U.S. Surgeon General also considers vaping a health crisis that affects one in five high school students. While inhaling nicotine causes long-term harmful consequences for a student-athlete’s heart and lungs, getting caught vaping at school can result in immediate punishments that keep them from competing.

Vaping is the act of inhaling vapor created by battery-powered e-cigarette devices, like the one JUUL sells. These e-cigarettes contain pods with a variety of synthetic flavors and a mixture of other chemicals. While these products do not use tobacco, they contain varying amounts of nicotine.

There is far less research on the health effects of vaping than the effects of smoking cigarettes, but organizations such as the American Lung Association have gathered the results of multiple studies in one place. E-cigarette pods contain chemicals that can cause lung and cardiac disease as well as harm the developing brains of children.

Parents and school officials in Massachusetts spoke to MassLive about how vaping has impacted students in their state. According to Framingham High School Athletic Director Paul Spear, student-athletes caught vaping on campus are in his office every week. Under Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association regulations, Spear has no choice but to suspend them for a series of games.

“From the athletic standpoint, it’s heartbreaking,” Spear said. “The worst part of my job is telling a student-athlete they can’t compete because they’ve done something that precludes them from being part of their team.”

In one example, hockey team captain Cade Beauparlant was removed after being caught vaping in school. His mother, Kristin Beauparlant, explained he underwent treatment for nicotine addiction. During the process, her son learned he had developed lung disease. He began vaping during the eighth grade.

Beauparlant saw how her son was forced to sit when he was a freshman on the hockey team because he couldn’t breathe. She said he also experienced mood swings off the ice.

“He was a child that would scream and yell and swear, call me names. Then he’d just leave,” Beauparlant said. “I’d be like ‘Where is he going?’ And then I realized he was going to do his JUUL.”

Part of what makes e-cigarettes an increasing problem is not all students who use them realize they contain nicotine. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said students denied using e-cigarettes until he asked if they JUUL instead.

“Once I found out that kids were using, many of them thought that what they were using was not a big deal, that maybe they could stop any time they wanted,” Winickoff said. “Some of them thought that vaping was just water vapor plus some flavor.”

The state has tried multiple measures to mitigate the rise of e-cigarettes, but methods such as raising the minimum smoking age to 21 and passing municipal restrictions on flavored nicotine sales haven’t worked. Students drive 10 to 20 minutes to a town that doesn’t have sales bans.

In Connecticut, Stamford High School Principal Raymond Manka is considering a different approach. He told the Associated Press that after seeing two football players vaping after a game, he started looking at the problem as an addiction instead of just bad behavior. Now his school is exploring a cessation program instead of suspensions for students caught vaping.

This change could impact many students; the number caught vaping in Connecticut swelled from 349 in 2015 to 2,160 in 2017. Many were given in-school suspensions, but some were given out-of-school suspensions, according to the state Education Department.

Other districts, such as the Conejo Valley Unified School District in southern California, have started sending first offenders to a four-hour Saturday class on the marketing and health dangers of vaping. Repeat offenses result in suspensions paired with a more intensive six-week counseling program that includes parents.

“We are seeing quite a bit of success, basing it on the reduction this year in both the number of incidents reported on campus and the number of suspensions,” said Luis Lichtl, the district’s assistant superintendent.

In addition, some have suggested the wrong punishments could encourage further vaping in students.

“If your solution is to send these kids home, what do you think they are going to be doing at home?” said Dr. J. Craig Allen, medical director at a mental health treatment center in Meriden, Connecticut. “They are going to be taking rips off their JUUL all day long to kill the time.”

Jason Krell is a masters of sports journalism student at Arizona State University

Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.