In the final month of 2018, concerns about the increase in student vaping were brought to me by a worried parent, at a meeting of state scholastic athletic leaders and at our monthly gathering of superintendents with the Department of Education.
Perhaps the term vaping has become too broad, as the market for youth e-cigarette use has been taken over by one brand: JUUL. You know you have achieved dominance in an industry when your brand name is turned into a verb, and for kids today, the most popular vaping practice is “JUULing.”
These sleek, tiny e-cigarettes that look like a flash drive have been cleverly marketed to youth culture and use pod technology to deliver a flavored blast of addictive nicotine. Parents and health officials have expressed concern about the obvious negative health impacts of youth nicotine consumption through these devices.
Thirty years ago, when I began teaching in the late 1980s, youth smoking was a huge problem. Studies at the time estimated almost 40 percent of 12th graders were smoking cigarettes. So, a concerted effort was started to address this problem. As an educator for three decades in several districts, I personally have had “the pleasure” of doing the following:
Of course, educators were not alone in this fight against youth tobacco use. Millions of dollars were spent on ubiquitous powerful commercials and public-service advertisements over the years that have pointed out the health dangers and negative effects of smoking.
And these approaches actually worked. During the past 30 years, the percentage of 12th graders smoking cigarettes was down to seven percent in 2017. Early in my teaching career, there were clouds of smoke in every enclave and corner of a school. Now, I can’t remember the last time I smelled cigarette smoke in a school. It was one of the best educational success stories during the past three decades.
Then along came JUUL.
Three years ago, JUUL did not exist, but in mid-December, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes bought a 35 percent share in JUUL for $12.8 billion. That values JUUL at about $38 billion, which is in the monetary ballpark of more familiar faces such as Target and Ford.
JUUL can deliver what has escaped the big tobacco companies – those kids we have spent 30 years trying to educate about the evils of nicotine. JUUL has successfully cornered the desirable and lucrative youth market.
A recent study by the University of Michigan showed that the increase in adolescent vaping from 2017 to 2018 was the largest ever recorded for any adolescent substance use outcome in the United States. Research suggests that almost 30 percent of 12th graders are now actively vaping in 2018, with JUUL by far the most popular product.
So, in the course of three years, through clever product design, social media marketing, and positioning itself at the center of millennial culture, JUUL was able to capture the youth demographic that big tobacco had lost over the past couple decades. As a result, 30 years of good work disappeared in a figurative blink of an eye, and now educators have a new problem on their hands.
In recent meetings, ideas to address JUUL use among students and athletes included adding sensors in school bathrooms, aggressive educational programs, expressively prohibiting their use through our athletic participation process and increased staff supervision in suspected areas of use. Of course, these are approaches and items that will involve new applications of human resources and the spending of tax dollars that could definitely be used in other areas of our academic and athletic programming.
However, in the end we will do anything to protect our students and athletes, so whatever we have to do to address this problem, we will certainly try. It is frustrating, however, to see so much progress wiped out by corporations like JUUL that seem to care more about their greed than the children in our schools.
Perhaps one of the solutions for this growing problem would be to have those who have profited at the expense of our children doing their share – $38 billion would buy a lot of vapor sensors for the nation’s schools!
Michael Nitti is superintendent of the Ewing Public Schools in Ewing, New Jersey. © Michael Nitti, 2019