High school students sometimes notice classmates slyly puffing away — in class — behind a book, blowing smoke into their sleeves.
During a fire drill on a brisk day, some brazen students might even sneak a smoke out in the open, believing teachers and principals will mistake the small clouds as exhaled cold air.
Sure, teenagers are still huddling in obvious areas like bathrooms or just off school grounds to light up, but most of them aren’t using a lighter to smoke a butt. They’re “vaping” with electronic cigarettes. And schools are finding that the devices are becoming more popular among students than traditional cigarettes.
While the nicotine product isn’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, county lawmakers have passed legislation banning e-cigarettes in places where smoking isn’t allowed. Suffolk County has also set a minimum age of 21 for purchasing both regular and e-cigarettes and is requiring stores to post warnings about the known dangers of liquid nicotine.
E-cigarettes, the most popular version of the devices, usually have a battery, a heating element and a reservoir to hold a liquid. The liquid typically contains nicotine, which is the addictive drug in regular cigarettes, as well as chemicals like propylene glycol or glycerin and flavorings such as fruit and chocolate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The liquid nicotine is sold in tiny cartridges and in small bottles that are used to refill the electronic cigarette. Teens and adults are also using the devices to inhale mind-altering drugs.
E-cigarettes have been banned in the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District. Students caught with them face a punishment just as severe as what’s meted out for those found in possession of a narcotic or drug paraphernalia, said Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti.
“We’re not in the business of catching students — we’re more trying to encourage them not to use it,” he said. “Not knowing what the students are putting in these things, we came at it aggressively and communicated with students and parents so everyone is fully aware of how we would handle that and what our expectations would be.”
Mr. Petretti said the new policy was adopted last year after district officials found a wide cross-section of the student population — including athletes, NJROTC cadets and honor students — had been vaping.
“If we go back and look at all the kids we caught with these things over the last two years, it’s truly diverse,” he said.
Administrators in the Shoreham-Wading River School District have also noticed that e-cigarettes are becoming more popular with students than regular cigarettes.
Shoreham-Wading River High School principal Dan Holtzman said e-cigarettes were added to the district’s policy last year and that the same disciplinary procedures apply as when a student is found using a traditional cigarette.
“They are generally caught with them out or using them,” Mr. Holtzman said. “We find more of the e-cigarettes lately and less of actual tobacco-filled ones.”
Policies in Southold and Riverhead schools also include bans on e-cigarettes. The Greenport School District currently doesn’t address e-cigarettes in its policy.
A group of local students interviewed last week by The Suffolk Times said more of their classmates are using e-cigarettes than traditional ones and explained that it’s easy to use the devices in school since the product is odorless.
The students, who asked to remain anonymous, said they believe teenagers are vaping because the product appears to be a safe and healthy alternative to tobacco. While the vapor does deliver nicotine, it is believed to be free of the tars, toxins and carbon monoxide delivered by conventional tobacco cigarettes.
Health officials warn that liquid nicotine can be harmful if swallowed, absorbed by the skin or inhaled, noting that the liquid is often unregulated.
Symptoms of nicotine poisoning include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, sweating, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, tremors, headache, dizziness and seizures, according to the CDC.
The CDC also reports that the number of calls to poison control centers involving e-cigarette liquids rose from one per month in September 2010 to 215 per month by February 2014.
More than half the calls involved children under age 5, according to the federal agency.
Suffolk County health department commissioner Dr. James Tomarken said medical professionals are concerned e-cigarettes have been glamorized and targeted toward young people. He said there are also concerns about data showing that school-age children are increasingly using e-cigarettes, and that not enough research has been done to understand the long-term effects, including related health risks.
“The biggest misconception is this is a safe alternative to smoking,” he said. “There’s no evidence to show that’s true. Because the substance is unregulated, you don’t know what you’re buying.
“You’ve got nicotine, additives and illicit substances that could potentially be used,” he said.
When asked if he believes that the upward trend in e-cigarettes use has undone the anti-smoking progress made by banning smoking in public places and increasing the age limit for people to purchase nicotine products, Dr. Tomarken said he believes “it hasn’t been undone, but it’s under stress.”
“It’s really being pushed to the limit,” he said. “We all know the younger one starts, the easier it is to get addicted, the longer they’ll be addicted and the harder it is to stop the addiction. The concern that we have is the age group it’s targeted at is very young.”
Mattituck health teacher Michael Martin said he’s noticed that e-cigarettes have given students the false impression that the product is safer than tobacco cigarettes.
“Although they do not produce tobacco smoke, e-cigarettes still contain nicotine and other potentially harmful chemicals,” Mr. Martin said. “Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, and recent research suggests nicotine exposure may also prime the brain to become addicted to other substances.”
He said he provides his students with a list of tips to help them quit smoking, known as START: Set a quit date; Tell family, friends and co-workers that you plan to quit; Anticipate and plan for the challenges you’ll face while quitting; Remove cigarettes and other tobacco products from your home, car and work; and Talk to your doctor about getting help to quit.
Mr. Petretti said that although a couple of students have been suspended this year, he believes Mattituck’s new policy has had success because it has raised more awareness about e-cigarettes.
“People have been smoking for a long time and you wonder why any kid ever picks up a cigarette and begins to smoke,” he said. “Because they think it’s cool and it’s the same with these things.”