WILLIAMSBURG, Ky. (WKYT/Gray News) - Vaping is considered an epidemic among young people across the commonwealth and the country.
Still, experts say those efforts are not enough, and communities across the state are having to get creative to deal with the problem as users get younger and younger.
"We can't say this is a high school issue," said Tim Melton, superintendent of the Williamsburg Independent School District. "We have to know the societal norms are [that] this is happening [in] sixth, seventh and eighth [grades]. Those kids are exposed to it and we need to make sure that we're watching out for that too."
Looking for solutions
The story in Williamsburg is the story in so many other places around Kentucky, as communities work to find new and unique ways to deal with the problem, even as restrictions tighten.
Tim Melton is in a unique position to observe the prevalence of the vaping epidemic, as superintendent - and before that, principal - of a school with pre-schoolers through 12th graders all in the same building.
In that time he has seen vaping go from a novelty to a national problem. And it is not always easy to spot.
"It can slide in any pocket right there and somebody can use it," Melton said inside his office on a recent rainy day, showing WKYT's Garrett Wymer a vaping device that has been confiscated from a student.
It is one of about 10 vaping devices that has been confiscated from Williamsburg students so far this school year - none of those from high school students, Melton said.
Many of the devices are small and look something like a flash drive. There's no flame needed to light an e-cigarette; students can use them in bathrooms (or even classrooms) and blow the vapor into a sleeve or the hood of their sweatshirt, with little evidence to prove it if someone does not see it happen.
That is why the district now plans to install FlySense vape detectors in the school's bathrooms.
The detectors, designed by Soter Technologies, look somewhat like a smoke detector. They work by using sensors to detect vaping or smoke (and they can also identify loud noises that could suggest violent bullying). They then provide real-time updates to administrators.
The devices have detected more than 72,000 vaping incidents since January 2019, according to a counter on the product webpage.
The school district has already ordered one of the devices, which is expected to arrive this week, Melton said. He hopes to order 11 more vape detectors, if the district gets approval for a grant to purchase more of them.
Enforcing state and federal laws
It is under the purview of Kentucky's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to enforce age restrictions on the purchase of tobacco, e-cigarettes and vaping products.
The department enforces the restrictions by reported violations and through its Investigative Aide Program, which uses underage youth to attempt to buy tobacco or vaping products, according to the ABC website.
In 2019 Kentucky's ABC issued 23 citations, the lowest number in the past decade, according to data obtained by WKYT through an open records request. (You can see more numbers in the Infogram at the bottom of this story.) Initial penalties levied are $100, which increases to $200 if not timely paid, the department's records custodian said in a letter.
But to be fair, those numbers do not give a full picture of government enforcement efforts in the commonwealth. The department also contracts with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to investigate compliance with federal tobacco laws (an umbrella under which vaping also falls). Under that contract, the department gathers and submits evidence to the FDA, which then issues citations or other penalties if necessary, according to the state ABC records custodian.
The FDA publishes its compliance enforcement efforts in an extensive online database. Through a search of the database, WKYT found 197 violations listed in 3,202 FDA compliance check inspections from 2019. Those numbers remain fairly constant over the past few years, with roughly 200 violations each year for the past few years. (More detailed numbers are in the Infogram below.)
Yet even with recently tightened rules and regulations, those vaping devices still end up in the hands of young people. Only 12 percent of Kentucky high schoolers bought their own vaping products at a store anyway, according to a statewide student survey published in December.
Tracking the epidemic
More than half of Kentucky high schoolers and nearly a third of Kentucky middle schoolers have vaped at least once, the 2019 Kentucky Youth Risk Behavior shows.
The survey is part of a national effort by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor students' behaviors in six areas of health risk: injury and violence, alcohol and drug use, tobacco use, nutrition, physical activity, and sexual risk behaviors, according to the Kentucky Department of Education website.
Kentucky has administered the survey since 1997. The first year that the survey shows results for e-cigarette/vaping-related questions is 2015.
There has been some fluctuation since that time, but it is clear by looking at the results that vaping is common. From the 2019 Kentucky high school student trend report:
- More than half of high schoolers have used vaping products at least once.
- The percentage of high schoolers currently using vaping products nearly doubled from 2017.
- The percentage of high schoolers who use them daily more than quadrupled from 2017.
From the 2019 Kentucky middle school student trend report:
- Nearly a third of middle schoolers have used vaping products at least once. That has doubled since 2017.
- The percentage of middle schoolers currently using vaping products has more than quadrupled since 2017.
- The percentages of middle schoolers who use vaping products frequently or daily, while still relatively low, have also increased significantly compared to the 2017 numbers.
The numbers are disturbing to many working to curb them. That is where #iCANendthetrend comes in.
Ending the trend
About a year ago, a group of University of Kentucky students and a professor launched the e-cigarette prevention and empowerment program. In the time since, the program's college facilitators have spoken to 4,500 students in elementary, middle and high schools in more than 20 counties across the commonwealth. They have seen how prevalent the problem is.
"It's so scary to see my generation becoming addicted to nicotine and products like that," said Hayley Leach, a UK senior and a college facilitator with #iCANendthetrend, "when we had done such a good job of making sure our generation wasn't using regular cigarettes."
Leach and her fellow facilitators use a peer-to-peer approach to encourage students to put down e-cigarettes, or, preferably, not pick them up in the first place. The curriculum they use is flexible, which makes it easy to adapt as needs and trends change. For example, they are speaking less now about Juul and other pod-based vaping devices compared to last year, and more about disposable e-cigarettes.
"They are our future leaders, our future teachers, our future doctors, our future engineers, anything that we can think of," said Dr. Melinda Ickes, a UK professor who helps lead the program. "If they aren't able to make it because they are now dependent on these products when they're teenagers, that should be worrisome to all of us."
One part of the problem is that until recently, many people just did not know much about what vaping does to one's body. But even as the dangers become more and more apparent, they still have to make sure kids are aware.
After all, Dr. Ickes said, there is no reason for young people to use them. They are not using them to quit smoking. In fact, Dr. Ickes said they have found that students who use e-cigarettes as young people are significantly more likely to smoke cigarettes when they get older.
The facilitators going into classrooms are more than just role models - they are also providing students with ways to make substantial change in their communities.
"I can't tell you how many times a student has come up to me after a presentation and said, 'OK, I want to do something about it,'" Leach said.
It is education like that which Williamsburg Superintendent Tim Melton hopes will help in the fight against vaping commonwealth- and country-wide.
"It's societal," he said. "And that's the part that worries me."
And it is particularly worrisome in his school, where not only the next generation but even the generation after that are already walking the hallways.
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