Turn on the news and you’ll likely hear about teenage vaping — a form of smoking that utilizes electronic cigarettes. Walk down any middle school or high school hallway in America and you are guaranteed to see posters enumerating the dangers of vaping.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the U.S Surgeon General has recently declared vaping an “epidemic” among middle school and high school students. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that teenage vaping has skyrocketed 78 percent over the past two years, with 20 percent of high schoolers vaping, accounting for 3 million high school students nationwide.

In response, schools — frustrated by their inability to control their students — have started “cracking down” and monitoring students’ behavior and imposing penalties on those caught vaping.

My high school wants to scare its students straight with harsh punishments that would permanently stain their college transcript and hinder them from getting into their dream college. The first time offense? A detention and a minimum one-day suspension from all sports and co-curricular activities. The second time offense? A five-day detention and suspension from sports and activities. Subsequent offenses? Suspension from school as dictated by the administration.

Despite these punishments, students continue to vape. In fact, such disciplinary measures seem to actually exacerbate the problem, as they neglect to address the root causes of vaping. If schools truly want to combat teenage vaping, then they need to stop treating vaping as a punitive matter and start addressing it as a psychological matter by examining its underlying causes.

Schools need to ask themselves: why would so many students choose to vape knowing it’s possible long-term health consequences and knowing the punishment that awaits them if they get caught? Many educators believe students are simply unaware of the dangers that vaping poses. However, schools are literally hitting students over the head with its dangers — through health class lectures and through assemblies. So, I find that really hard to believe.

Other educators blame the epidemic on peer pressure. However, research suggests that students are not, overall, feeling the pressure to vape; rather they are feeling the pressure to academically excel. A 2019 survey released from the Pew Research Center found that of those students in high school who were experiencing anxiety or depression, 61 percent attributed it to the pressure to get good grades and attain high SAT scores, while only 10 percent ascribed it to the pressure from peers to consume alcohol or take drugs.

Interestingly, no teenagers mentioned feeling pressure from peers to vape.

Is it not possible, then, that students are vaping to quell their academic anxiety or overall depression? According to a new study published in Nicotine and Tobacco Research by the Researchers at the University of Texas — it’s a resounding yes!

The study assessed 8,704 adolescents and found that students who experienced elevated levels of depressive symptoms were significantly more likely to start using e-cigarettes than students who did not. If anxiety and depression are partly responsible for teenage vaping, then it is not only misguided but detrimental to suspend students from participating in sports — the one thing that helps many teens cope with stress and anxiety.

Like vaping, playing sports releases dopamine — a chemical that activates the reward center of teenagers’ brains, giving teenagers a sensation of pleasure and alleviating their symptoms of anxiety and depression. Students who are addicted to e-cigarettes are more likely to vape if they are suspended from sports, not only because they will have more free time on their hands, but because they won’t get the release of dopamine that they are so craving from vaping.

How can a school, then, justify taking away a student’s coping method? Are they really that surprised when students subsequently turn to destructive coping strategies like vaping, self-harm, or worse?

It is imperative for schools to start realizing how difficult it is to be a teenager. Not only do many of us feel academic pressure, but we may also feel pressure to live up to societal standards of beauty portrayed in magazines and television shows —inevitably falling short.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2018 reported that as many as 10 out of every 100 U.S young women consequently suffer from an eating disorder; young women may starve themselves just to look Cosmopolitan-skinny. They may also turn to vaping to suppress their appetite.

The International Journal of Eating Disorders has revealed that those with eating disorders vape significantly more often than those without eating disorders for that very reason. Sadly, to many teenage girls, the way to be accepted and belong is to become dangerously thin. If teenagers are vaping to lose weight and fit in, then it is foolish and futile for schools to keep pushing Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign; it has proven to be ineffective in combating drug use and it will continue to prove useless in combating teenage vaping.

Schools must start addressing the root causes of vaping — like eating disorders, teenage self-esteem,

anxiety and depression — in health class and in school assemblies — and brainstorm ways to offer students more therapeutic counseling and less punishments.

My school completely glosses over these root causes to reserve more time to address the dangers of vaping. In my health class, only one day was devoted to anxiety and depression, zero days to eating disorders and self-esteem issues, and an entire month to vaping and peer pressure in conjunction with vaping — and we’ve already established that students are not, overall, feeling pressure from their peers to vape.

So why are schools spending so little time discussing the root causes of vaping and endless amounts of time rattling off the numerous punishments that will await those who vape?

Many educators believe that punishment is the only way to deter teenagers from vaping and ultimately halt teenage vaping for good. However, disciplinary actions are ineffective for those who are already vaping; these students are already addicted and in need of compassionate guidance and professional help, not punishment.

Students will not seek the help they so desperately need to quit vaping if they are fearful of their teachers, who they know are ready, willing, and able to punish them for their vaping with detentions and possible suspensions.

Educators who resort to the use of punishment are forgetting why they are “cracking down” on vaping in the first place: e-cigarettes contain the highly addictive chemical nicotine that activates the reward center of the brain, causing students to become addicted and crave more nicotine. What, then, is the benefit of punishing students with detentions and suspensions if they are already addicted to e-cigarettes?

Telling a student who is addicted to nicotine to stop vaping is like commanding a person who is hysterically crying to immediately stop sobbing; the faucet cannot be immediately turned off. Penalties are not going to help students break their nicotine addiction and stop vaping; it will only make them feel more anxious, alone, and depressed.

If educators truly want students to stop vaping, then they need to create a culture in which students feel comfortable confiding in them and asking for help so that they can get the medical help they need to break their addiction.

Five towns on the North Shore recognize that punishing students with suspension is not the answer to teenage vaping: Lynn, Peabody, Beverly, Ipswich, and Gloucester. Each of these towns are willing to pay $10,000 to participate in the Positive Alternatives to Student Suspension (Pass) Program, where students receive counseling by professional clinicians, addiction therapy, and time to complete homework.

Interestingly, some of the more wealthy towns in the North Shore area were not willing to deduct $10,000 from their school budget on such a therapeutic program.

Simply said, if you want students to listen to you, you need to stop lecturing and start listening; treat us with respect and take the time to truly understand what we are experiencing. By issuing detentions and suspensions from school activities, schools are sending the message that they are only “cracking down” on vaping to regain control over their students, not to ensure the emotional and physical well-being/safety of their students.

Scientifically and emotionally, schools are approaching vaping in all the wrong ways; they must change their strategy from one of discipline to one of compassion.

 

— Emma Sullivan is a student at Hamilton-Wenham High School.