ROCKVILLE – During the Aug. 29 Montgomery County School Board business meeting, Chief Academic Officer Maria Navarro answered a question about the district’s concerted effort to better educate both students and parents on the harmful effects of vaping.
“Yes, absolutely,” Navarro responded, noting that meetings will be set up with officials from the county’s health department, schools and parent-teacher organizations.
Had Winston Churchill High School senior Louis Schreiber been at the meeting, he probably would have let out a huge sigh of relief – that is, if he could.
“I have asthma. I am an asthmatic. I was consistently suffering from using the bathroom, from just walking the hallways,” said Schreiber, the only student on a county task force formed to reduce vaping among young people.
“They are vaping and Juuling in class, in the hallways,” he said, referring to Juul, an electric cigarette company whose devices resemble flash drives.
According to Schreiber, students carry them throughout their school day and use them when teachers are not looking. As part of the task force, he has been working for the past four years to rid the bathrooms, halls and classrooms of the sweet, fruity smell emitted every time a e-cigarette, a handheld battery-powered vaporizer that does not burn tobacco, is used.
It is against Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) rules to smoke or vape in or on school property. It is considered a Level 3 violation out of the five levels used by the school system and a person caught doing it can be subject to a punishment that could range from a verbal correction from a teacher, referral to a school counselor, a call home, detention or suspension.
However, according to Schreiber, what happens at Churchill is the device is confiscated and the student is instructed to write an essay.
That is not enough, he said, as most kids buy another device. Schreiber admits to not using the school bathrooms anymore, which students commonly referred to as the “vape Juul room,” since his freshman year.
According to county school officials, three Churchill students were taken by ambulance to the hospital after vaping on campus. However, it is not the only school to experience e-cigarette-related health problems.
Middle and high schools throughout the district are seeing an increase in vaping, said School Board Vice President Patricia O’Neil, who is the person who asked Navarro to do more to stop students from vaping.
“I hear a lot of complaints of kids vaping in the bathrooms,” she said.
Former board member Jill Ortman-Fouse agreed, noting, “The problem with vaping in high school and middle school is pervasive. I have heard from parents, teachers, principals and students.”
Students hide the small devices in their clothing, especially hoodies, she said.
“The kids don’t really know what is in” the e-cigarettes, she said. “I think parents think it’s better than cigarettes,” she noted.
“It’s just something that smells good; that’s what kids think,” Ortman-Fouse said.
“Health is very important to us, and it’s just such a distraction,” she said of vaping. “Classrooms are for learning.”
According to information placed on MCPS’s website, most e-cigarettes contain up to five-percent nicotine while regular cigarettes contain no more than 1.7-percent nicotine. The metal microparticles released by the heating coils of e-cigarettes put students at risk for numerous breathing problems, according to the website.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Aug. 27, there have been 215 possible cases in 25 states of severe pulmonary disease associated with using e-cigarettes.
Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s chief health officer, said the county does not keep statistics on vaping incidents.
However, he said, “Police say they have seen an increasing trend.”
Not only are more students vaping, but they are starting at a younger age, Gayles said, noting students as young as 11 and 12 are vaping.
Young people do not know all the ingredients they are inhaling, he said. Some e-cigs contain opioids or laced with other substances not approved by the U.S. Surgeon General, he added.
The county is working with the schools to combat vaping. The health department staff plans to conduct briefings with members of the county council and school district, he said.
One idea under consideration is an advertisement design campaign in which students would graphically show the dangers of vaping, Gayles said.
“In the short term, it’s a scary thing,” with potentially devastating health risks, Gayles said.
In the long term, there could be other behavioral issues a young person is experiencing, which led them to vape, he said.
Gayles has been working with Schreiber, County Executive Marc Elrich’s office, members of the county council, schools, police and liquor control offices to develop a strategy to curtail vaping use.
“Steps under discussion include, but are not limited to, enhanced surveillance, penalties for underage distribution and increasing the age-ability for purchasing vaping and other electronic smoking devices,” Gayles wrote in a press release.
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-8th District) cosponsored a bill in the House of Representatives that would prevent online sales of e-cigarettes to children. The legislation would require in-person age verification upon delivery of online purchases of e-cigarettes and vaping products.
Raskin also cosponsored legislation in March to curb kid-friendly flavorings in e-cigs.
“I’m proud to cosponsor this bipartisan and bicameral legislation to clamp down on kid-friendly flavorings of e-cigarettes and cigars. Flavored nicotine products are hooking millions of our young people, with terrifying implications for their health. This is an epidemic taking place before our eyes. Let’s act now,” he wrote in a press release.
“The bottom line is that harmful nicotine and tobacco products should not have the same appeal as fruit-flavored vitamins,” wrote Raskin.
Besides sponsoring bills to curb tobacco and e-cigs usage, Raskin said his office has pushed for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to provide enough funding to regulate e-cigs.