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Students are now more likely to try e-cigs than traditional tobacco.

Nearly half of all teens in Pima County have tried a vape or e-cigarette, and the number is only growing. Part of preparing for the new school year means both school districts and health organizations alike are taking measures to educate students on the dangers of vaping. 

Throughout the ’90s and 2000s, the rate of traditional cigarette smoking gradually declined among young people as information about their health risks was taught at schools. This decline seemed so certain, that some health organizations believed the United States would see its first tobacco-free generation by 2030. However, since the introduction of e-cigarettes around 2003, usage both in and out of the United States has risen exponentially. Teens are now more likely to use vapes or e-cigarettes than traditional tobacco products.

“I think their popularity really has to do with how discreet and new they are,” said David Samorano, school resource officer with the Marana Police Department.

Samorano has worked as a school resource officer at Marana High School for three years. He initially encountered a student with a vape pen during his first week at the school, and said school officials now find and confiscate more vapes than they do traditional cigarettes. 

“I had a feeling they would replace the classic cigarette,” Samorano said. “It does have to do with how discreet they are, even the THC vapes are now using new flavors to mask the smell.” 

According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2013 there were 250,000 high school students who had never smoked regular cigarettes, but had tried a vape.

School officials generally find students with vapes more often than the police do, according to Samorano. As such, school districts like Marana Unified have restructured their health service departments and campus rules to combat vaping. Marana schools are now discussing the risks of vaping to students in assemblies and via counseling services.

“In the state of Arizona, it is illegal for individuals under the age of 18 to purchase [e-cigarettes],” said Tamara Crawley, director of public relations for MUSD. “If a student possesses or uses an illegal substance in conjunction with vaping or vaping paraphernalia, a referral will be made to local law enforcement.”

As part of MUSD’s health services, disciplinary action for being found with a vape is combined with “positive behavioral interventions and supports” in their counseling department.

According to Jon Lansa, principal of Amphitheater High School: “The minimum consequence for having a vaping device at school is suspension and a recommendation for expulsion from school.” All vaping devices are defined in Amphi’s Student Code of Conduct as a drug.

While e-cigarettes expose users to fewer toxicants than traditional cigarettes, there is little long-term research as to their health effects. Some may view them as less addictive options, however, they still contain nicotine. While e-cigarettes may do less immediate bodily harm than cigarettes, many health organizations indicate this does not mean they are entirely harmless. 

“Any introduction of unknown chemicals to a body, particularly a young person’s body, can be very dangerous,” Samorano said. 

Outside of local school systems, the Pima County Health Department is also taking steps to combat vaping with a new awareness campaign titled “The Real Deal on Vaping.” The campaign will provide a “Tobacco Prevention Resource Toolkit” to parents and school officials which includes access to help lines and information on how to talk to youth about vaping.

“We want to address this problem appropriately and aggressively, and this means attacking the problem at schools,” said Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy Guy Marchal at the Real Deal on Vaping kickoff event. “These devices are patently illegal for kids to have… There is a criminal liability on adults who provide vapes to kids.”

But one of the largest aspects of the Real Deal on Vaping campaign is a campaign to meet students where they are: on social media. 

To fight the rapidly growing trend of vaporizers and e-cigarettes, school districts are using nearly all of the tools to combat drugs and alcohol in decades prior. 

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