SEATTLE — It was smoke tricks on social media that swayed 17-year-old Audriana Slye to buy her first vape, and the weightlessness of a nicotine buzz that kept the mouthpiece at her lips for two years.
An adult friend got her a device made by Juul, the company that Seattle, La Conner and other school districts nationwide are taking to court for its advertising, which they say targets youth.
When the addiction kicked in, the West Seattle High School senior was finishing a cartridge in two or three days, the nicotine equivalent of 20 cigarettes. Like a fidget spinner, it became a distraction for idle moments.
She answered many of her cravings — which make her mouth water and body jitter — at school, taking hits in the bathroom or during class, where she would blow the vapor into her sleeve, she said. The devices she and her friends used were small, the size of USB sticks, and went largely undetected at her school, where she said education about vaping was limited to a handful of posters and confiscated devices.
While school districts in Washington have raised awareness on substance abuse and prevention for decades, the state’s Student Assistance Prevention-Intervention Services Program that funds drug- and alcohol-prevention specialists in state schools has dwindled. Between the 2004-05 and 2017-18 school years, the number of schools served through the program dropped from 809 to 91, an 88% decline, said Mandy Paradise, program supervisor for the state education department.
The program lost its grant funding through the federal Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in 2010. Three years later, it shrank further after a restructuring by the Washington State Health Care Authority in 2013, which narrowed the scope of the program to higher-need areas. As a result, the state dedicated less money to it, Paradise said.
Many districts are supplementing this loss of funding through grants and other means. But the surge in teen vaping and nicotine addiction is testing their limits: Between 2014 and 2018, there was a 20% increase in the number of youth reporting electronic cigarette or vape use in Washington, according to the state’s Healthy Youth Survey. A quarter of high-school seniors surveyed in King County reported vaping last year, and in Seattle, the number of 10th graders who reported vaping rose 250% between 2016 and 2018.
Slye decided to quit last month after noticing that her asthma and ability to focus had worsened. As she kicks the habit, Slye says she wants other students to consider doing the same. And even though adults at school weren’t a part of her decision to stop, she says they still have an important role to intervene.
Relatively odorless and designed to be discrete, those devices — loaded with cartridges that contain a concentrated amount of THC or nicotine — can easily fly under the radar of unsuspecting parents or teachers.
Educators and public officials say the rise in vaping among teens coincides with the introduction of vapes made by companies like Juul, which paid social-media influencers to promote its products.
Forty-seven deaths and nearly 2,300 lung injuries have been linked to vaping and e-cigarette use nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; people under 25 make up about 53% of those injuries, with 15% being under 18. In Washington, 19 cases of illness have been tied to vaping since April.
As the numbers climb, school administrators remain on high alert, regularly patrolling bathrooms and confiscating hundreds of devices.
Officials hope that recent changes in state policy will curb use among youth, including the state’s 120-day ban on flavored vape products and the 2020 law that will raise the legal age to buy non-cannabis smoking and vaping products from 18 to 21. In the meantime, drug and alcohol counselors based in schools are focusing their energies on information campaigns for kids and adults.
Making sure employees and parents have up-to-date information on vaping is an important part of the response, said Lisa Davidson, who heads prevention and intervention for Seattle Public Schools.
At a training last month, she passed out a few confiscated vaping products to a small group of staff working in middle schools and explained their basic parts.
She also showed a few examples of videos and slides that educators could use in their classroom presentations on vaping. Like Johnson and Langon, Davidson also favors a straightforward approach that isn’t preachy.
“I’ve had teachers tell me that this content isn’t scary enough,” Davidson commented during the training. “But I actually like that it presents the information and lets the students decide for themselves.”