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Today’s guest blog post is written by one of Oak Hill Academy’s school nurses, Betsy Anderson, RN, BSN.  As her life’s work is with boarding high school students, Nurse Betsy is very passionate about health issues that are particularly relevant to teenagers.  

Several years ago I was taking a road trip and my mind was wandering. I was thinking about a law that had been recently passed in Virginia making it illegal for adults to smoke in cars with their children present. As a school nurse, and as a mother myself, I am a strong supporter of this law. I remember looking around as I drove, seeing other people driving or riding in cars, people walking down the street. I looked to see if any of the people I encountered were smoking. …I COULD NOT FIND ONE. The healthcare professional in me felt a small sense of satisfaction. I thought to myself, “You go, America! You are doing it! You are kicking your horrible habits!” Little did I know a new enemy was lurking just around the corner. Vaping.

Although vaping has had a huge increase in popularity in the last two years, the first electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) was invented and patented in the 1960s by Herbert A. Gilbert. The device uses a heating element to turn liquid (e-liquid or e-juice) into a vapor that the user inhales. Mr. Gilbert wanted to market his nicotine delivery invention as an alternative to traditional smoking. But because tobacco companies already had so much momentum in the consumer market, it never took off. Only recently have e-cigarettes exploded in the marketplace. What is alarming to me is that the largest population of e-cigarette consumers are adolescents, and that this number is growing at unprecedented rates. According to the CDC, e-cigarette use in high school students tripled from the year 2013 to 2014. This means that in one year the number of high school students in the United States who vaped increased from 660,000 to 2 MILLION. This number is unbelievable.

Why is vaping so appealing to adolescents? I believe one reason is that the marketing for these products has been misleading for many. E-cigarettes have been marketed as a “safer” alternative to smoking, but there is no real data to support this claim, In fact, studies are continuing to be published that show how very harmful vaping can be. When a people believe that vaping is “less harmful” than smoking, they neglect to consider that it is not HARMLESS. Another reason vaping is so appealing to adolescents is that it tastes good and has virtually no lingering smell. The most popular e-juice flavors in 2017 were Gummi Bear, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Catch Ya Latte, On Cloud Custard, Muffin Man, and Cloud Candy. Clever names. And they sound delicious, right? And some vapes and supplies are so small and so disguised that it is easy for teens to hide them from their parents and school officials. If a teen is determined to hide their vaping, it is virtually undetectable. The final reason I believe vaping has exploded in the adolescent population is because of its concentrated and addictive quality and the effects of nicotine on the adolescent brain.

The absorption rate of nicotine is increased in the vapor delivery method and the nicotine receptors in the brain are overloaded with stimulation. Studies have shown that nicotine intake from one vape session can be equivalent to smoking 6 cigarettes, depending on the vaping device and e-juice used. When nicotine enters the brain and attaches to a receptor, the reward center lights up and dopamine is released. With continued use, more and more stimulation is needed for dopamine to be released, so users vape more and more. The adolescent brain is even more susceptible to this dependence trigger because the prefrontal cortex, where the reward center is located, is not fully developed until the early 20s. No wonder it is so addicting. Once exposed to this substance, our children will have an incredibly hard time not becoming addicted for life. When teenagers begins vaping, they are 70% more likely to begin smoking traditional cigarettes within 5 years.
Nicotine causes permanent damage to adolescent brains, and can affect long-term development, causing life-long problems with emotional response processing, memory, and reasoning and judgment abilities.

So, what is a school nurse to do? The first thing I have done is educate myself. I recently attended a conference that included a keynote speaker (Dr. Judson Brewer) who addressed addiction in the adolescent brain. One of the main areas he covered was vaping. I have spoken with colleagues. I have read countless medical journals and articles. I have learned so many scary facts associated with vaping that it is impossible to share them all in a single blog post. Vaping is a challenge for schools around the world, and Oak Hill Academy is no exception. We are a boarding school. Our students live here as well as attend classes. This means we must monitor classrooms, dorm rooms, and all other areas for vaping supplies. Teachers, resident life staff and administrative staff are all working together to tackle this very difficult issue. In healthcare, the best treatment is and always has been prevention. Vaping is absolutely a health crisis. I want my students to live healthy, fulfilled lives while they are with me and long after they leave me. That is why I became a school nurse. Children are the future of our world–and their success depends on their long-term health.

In order to decrease teen vaping rates, it is imperative that our students are educated about harmful effects of vaping BEFORE they try it. At Oak Hill Academy, we are currently developing  educational materials to be included in our robust resident life curriculum, and we continue to explore other ways to educate our students.  I ask that you, as parents and caregivers, become part of the team in helping fight this war. Educate yourself about vaping and its harmful effects. Share these facts with your children as soon as possible, and as often as possible.

Here are some excellent resources you can use to do this:

The Teen Vaping Trend – What Parents Need to Know

https://catch.org/lessons/catch-my-breath-middle-school-parent-resources

https://www.safekids.org/parents

Thanks for reading!
Betsy Anderson, RN, BSN
Oak Hill Academy Nurse