Tucked away under a stairwell or locked behind a bathroom door, Oyster River students are among the latest victims of the e-cigarette industry. The world of telling secrets in the bathroom has transformed into feeding a deep rooted issue of nicotine addiction.
“I definitely don’t remember the last time I went a full day without juuling in school,” said Sarah*, a student at Oyster River High School who like many of her peers, identifies as addicted to nicotine. Sarah is only 1 of the estimated 37.3% of 12th graders nationwide who reported vaping in the past 12 months, according to the National Institute of Health. This public health concern has begun to take lives and cause panic in every state and community across the country. Oyster River is no exception.
Vapes and e-cigarettes rose to popularity in the mid 2000s as an alternative to traditional cigarettes. MOR has detailed at length the history of vaping through Devan McClain’s article series, “JUUL,” focusing on the marketing tactics of Juul. Although these products were first marketed to a generation of tobacco users as a means of quitting, these companies have captivated a new generation: one that has fallen to the tactics of big tobacco just like their predecessors. Oyster River has started to make strides to combat this issue.
In mid November, Oyster River High School welcomed Allyssa Thompson from Breathe NH, for a week of informational sessions for all students and faculty in the building. Thompson works as the Director of Programs at Breathe NH, a non-profit organization working to improve lung health and combat lung disease in New Hampshire. “This is an industry that is unregulated and is taking a page right out of the playbook from big tobacco[…] This is about young people recognizing that they are being targeted, and it’s working,” said Thompson.
Although not all took Thompson’s talks in a serious manner, it did send a shockwave of urgency and created dialogue throughout many students in the building who recognize addiction in themselves and their peers. The reality of Oyster River is that students are addicted and many recognize that it is a problem. Sarah has been vaping for two years and estimates she uses one Juul pod per day. “I definitely do consider myself addicted to nicotine. When I first started I told myself I wasn’t gonna get addicted but as I kept buying, I found myself becoming more and more reliant on it on a day to day basis,” she said.
Sarah noted that for her, vaping started as something she did with her friends but it has spiraled into much more. “It’s not a social thing for me anymore, which is kind of scary: it’s a necessity.” Sarah is definitely not alone when it comes to battling addiction. Following Thompson’s talks, I talked to a number of my peers who acknowledged that their vaping habits are problematic, but did not identify themselves as addicted to nicotine.
“Young people don’t always identify as having an addiction. It’s more about noticing what that behavior looks like,” said Thompson, adding that it’s important for individuals and the people around them to recognize signs of addictions. “If you are sleeping with your vape and it’s the first thing you think about in the morning, that’s addiction. If you can’t make it through your classes without going to the restroom, if you can’t make it through practice, that’s addiction,” she said.
Addiction has become a large part of many students’ school days. Sarah explained that at the peak of her usage, “I would leave class a lot […] it became obvious as to what I was doing.”
Sarah is not alone when it comes to students who feel that their addiction has had an impact on their academic lives. Another student who expressed concern about addiction was Julia*. “I would be in [class], taking a test, and all I would think about is ripping my juul,” she said. Julia added that although she hasn’t ever vaped in the building she has had to think of creative ways to get her fix while at school, and said, “I would leave it in my car and say I needed to grab my lunch to go out and smoke.”
Vaping hasn’t just made an impact on student’s academics, it has also had an immense effect on their athletic lives. “I definitely have lost a lot of weight and muscle from [vaping][…] When I’m playing my sport I can definitely feel the effect two years of juuling has had on my lungs,” said Sarah. Similar to Sarah, Julia has also noticed the severe impact vaping has had on her athletic life. “When I’m playing my sport I can definitely feel shortness of breath.”
Whether it’s in the classroom or playing a sport, students are severely impacted by vaping and many struggle to quit. The accessibility of vapes and nicotine products for students at Oyster River poses a large barrier for quitting. Julia noted that if she doesn’t have her vape on any given day she could just, “go out downtown, not get carded, and get a disposable.”
Vaping is an area with many unknowns and one that is constantly evolving. Over the last few months, with deaths and severe lung injuries occurring at a national level, students are acknowledging that vaping is dangerous for them. Some, like Julia, have even devised plans with their friends to incentivize themselves to quit smoking. “Me and my friends know it’s bad so we share one,” she said, adding that, “we made a deal that after this one runs out we aren’t going to smoke at all and our punishment if we [smoke] is the other two girls get to pick out the other girl’s outfit for a day.” Ideas like this are not long term solutions for nicotine addiction. However, this is a starting point for some when identifying the issue.
With many students now aware of the dangers that vaping presents, many are looking for ways to quit. Unfortunately, this is where they run into a number of additional barriers. “Vaping hasn’t been around long enough to have the traditional nicotine replacement or therapy options […] The other thing is what traditionally has helped adults to quit tobacco products like nicotine replacement therapy has been found ineffective with minors,” said Thompson.
Although there aren’t a whole lot of medical interventions that can be done, schools across the state are taking steps to help students combat the severe addiction that many face. Thompson said that, “there is no one size fits all policy for school districts around vaping. We are seeing that schools are recognizing that students are addicted and so it’s about connecting them with treatment options and what programs are available.”
Students at Oyster River are looking for ways that they can quit. Sarah added that, “if the tools were provided for me to end my addiction, I would definitely take advantage of the opportunity. I think quitting nicotine is a mental battle that kids our age can’t beat alone, so support would significantly help.”
In the weeks following Thomspson’s presentations, the district welcomed a new Master Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor (MLDAC), Nichole Terhune, who will work with students individually and as an entire student body. “We have to break the stigma around addiction and mental health. We need to be able to talk about the hard stuff. We need to be here for each other with compassion, understanding, and kindness,”Terhune said.
Kimberly Wolph, ORHS School Nurse, spoke on the benefits of the new LDAC. “Having an additional resource in the building to help students is essential due to the rise of vaping usage throughout the middle school and high school. The LDAC is a highly trained professional who is skilled in working with students who may be struggling currently or who have struggled and need guidance,” said Wolph.
Terhune is optimistic about the future and looks to address this issue immediately. “Our high school students want to be heard and not judged. If I can give Oyster River students a safe place to talk about substance use, maybe I can help them dig deeper into understating their struggles,” she said.
Thompson concluded by saying that, “before, it was about catching kids who were trying it and experimenting. Now it’s about recognizing that the [students] are addicted and there is a serious problem.”