NAUGATUCK — Layne Bartek was introduced to vaping at his bus stop when he was an 11-year-old Hillside Intermediate School sixth-grader. The second time was when another student offered it to him and his friend Derek Strane at school.
“He said, ‘This is cool. There’s nothing wrong with it and there’s no nicotine,’” Layne recalled. “You could do tricks with it. I was telling everyone at school, ‘Look at this.’ I thought it was cool.”
Friends worried about Layne and Derek, now 12-year-old seventh-graders at City Hill Middle School, and told the principal. After getting in trouble, they decided to learn about vaping for a social studies presentation.
Layne and Derek were outraged at how vaping companies market to children with flavors like cotton candy and cake and sell skins for devices with sports and superhero themes.
“Every day at the bus stop I see four high school kids with vapes in their hand,” Derek said.
“It’s disgusting what’s in it,” Layne added.
Layne and Derek now work with Naugatuck Youth Services and make presentations against vaping.
According to the Connecticut Youth Tobacco Survey Results released by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the percentage of high school students reporting using e-cigarettes on one or more of the past 30 days increased six-fold from 2.4 to 14.7 percent from 2011 to 2017 — and it more than doubled from 2015 and 2017.
“It’s very alarming,” said Barbara Walsh, supervisor of the tobacco control program at DPH. “We would not be at all surprised if it’s higher now, from the feedback we get from school districts and administrations.”
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, calls vaping an epidemic.
Walsh said 57.7 percent of Connecticut teens use flavored e-cigarettes, and the survey shows 23.9 percent say they started vaping for the flavors. The FDA has asked manufacturers to cooperate in making their products less attractive to young people, she said.
Walsh said the FDA wants to put vaping under the same umbrella as tobacco products for national regulations, including advertising, but the details have not yet been worked out.
Among the potential solutions outlined by DPH are increasing the legal age for the sale of all tobacco products to 21, raising prices to make it more difficult for youth to buy, restricting sales of flavored tobacco products, and restricting the use of tobacco products in movies.
Jennifer DeWitt, executive director of the Central Naugatuck Valley Regional Action Council, oversees drug support and prevention efforts in 43 Western Connecticut towns.
“Every single one of them is seeing an increase in vaping on school grounds,” she said.
Woodland Regional High School Principal Kurt Ogren estimated that the percentage of students vaping at the high school is on par with national averages.
“I would say it’s been an issue for probably the last two or three years,” Ogren said.
According to information in a presentation on vaping and e-cigarettes put together by Woodland Assistant Principal Ryan Mackenzie, on average, one student has been found in possession of an e-cigarette or vaping paraphernalia every five days at Woodland so far in 2018. This doesn’t include searches resulting from suspicion of possession, the presentation states.
Naugatuck High School Principal John Harris said there’s been an increase in vaping at Naugatuck High as well.
“We have seen a rise of it, in the bathrooms especially. We have seen kids getting a little more brazen about doing it in the classrooms or the cafeteria or open spaces,” Harris said.
Vaping now far surpasses cigarette smoking at Woodland. In the last six years, Ogren said two students have been caught smoking cigarettes at Woodland.
“Smoking cigarettes is not an issue,” Ogren said.
Harris said the most concerning part is students are getting addicted to it.
“That is the scariest part, the students who are doing it over and over again, it is not that they are trying to be rude or disrespectful. They are legitimately addicted to these,” Harris said. “The kids that are getting their hands on this don’t necessarily realize that it is the same drug as in a cigarette and in a higher dose than you get in a cigarette. Just because it doesn’t have the terrible smell of a cigarette doesn’t mean it isn’t just as addictive and potentially unhealthy.”
Ogren thinks students have gravitated toward vaping because it’s easier to access. He added some parents also have the mindset that vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes.
“We really don’t know that to be true,” he said.
DeWitt said some e-liquids include diacetyl, which is used to flavor microwave popcorn and causes inflammation and scarring of the lungs, a condition known as popcorn lung. Propylene glycol, a carbohydrate allowed in foods, is in most e-liquids, but DeWitt says it’s also used in engine fluid, paints, enamels and varnishes.
She said vegetable glycerine, a main propellant in e-juices, is also used in beauty, skin and hair care products and as a thickening agent for creams and gel capsules.
“The biggest lie, to me, is the companies that manufacture them as a way to help quit cigarettes, but don’t address addiction to nicotine,” DeWitt said. “None have been backed by the FDA as an effective way to stop smoking.”
Vaping and e-cigarettes are treated like any other contraband at Woodland. Students caught vaping have the items confiscated and receive a day of in-school suspension. Repeat offenders face escalating discipline, Ogren said.
The main issue is students vaping in the bathroom, Ogren said. He said there is one bathroom open at any time at the school and staff members monitor it.
The school works on trying to prevent vaping through educational and awareness programs in students’ advisory periods, Ogren said. The Region 16 Community Prevention Task Force, known as 2COM, is also looking into grant funding to buy Fly Sense, a device similar to a smoke detector that can alert staff when someone is vaping in the bathroom, he said.
At Naugatuck High, Harris said school officials have been working to educate students on the health risks of vaping. But, they don’t shy away from punishing students caught vaping.
Harris said vaping at school carries the same penalties as smoking actual cigarettes, which includes a fine of up to $150 if the student is over 18 years old and a referral to the borough’s Juvenile Review Board if the student is a minor.
For some, the rise in vaping is déjà vu.
“We try to be optimistic, but to a large extent we feel as though we’re starting all over again in some ways,” Walsh said. “It’s unfortunate. All the battles that have been won in the cigarette realm are starting all over with e-cigarettes.”
Elio Gugliotti and Luke Marshall contributed to this article.