How big of an issue is vaping in local schools?

The FDA is warning parents of a new epidemic among teens in the U.S. involving vapes. The national government is warning that vape pens, especially the Juul, are being used by teens all across the country, including right here in Pittsburgh.

Channel 11 wanted to see how big of an issue it was among local schools. It didn't take long for districts to reach out to us and explain it was a very big deal.

How Juuls are hidden

We talked to schools across Southwestern Pennsylvania and found out juuling is happening a lot. Teens and school administrators told us it was happening in classrooms, school bathrooms and cafeterias, and that some of the kids doing it aren't even teenagers yet.

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Juuls are small, sleek, and easy to hide. They are branded as a way for cigarette users to get off tobacco products but still get a hit of nicotine. The amount of nicotine in one Juul cartridge is roughly equal to the amount of nicotine in a pack of cigarettes, or about 200 puffs, according to the product website. We're told students like the product because they can carry it around school without detection.

Why schools have trouble responding

Channel 11 sent an informal survey to most of the schools in our area to see just how bad the juuling problem is for them. Two superintendents told Channel 11 vaping and juuling is the biggest issue in their school. Nearly 40 other schools classified it as an issue, while only one school said it wasn't much of a problem.

We sat down with a student from Mount Pleasant who told us students are willing to vape just about anywhere. Bryce Jaworski told us students will vape in the bathroom to avoid cameras or even in blind spots to cameras in the cafeteria.

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At Avonworth High School, principal Keera Dwulit told us she's even heard stories of students sharing Juuls.

"They'll go in the bathroom, the juuls are easily hidden and then they pass or share the Juuls," said Dwulit.

The health impacts of teen juuling

Two UPMC doctors sat down with us for this story. They looked at a case study of one teen who juuled and now has respiratory failure, but say a lot more research is needed about the longtime impacts of the device.

"We know that it's exposing children to nicotine during critical brain development and we know it's inhaling a bunch of chemicals," said associate professor of pediatrics Daniel Weiner.

Jaworski explained to us how students can juul in school without getting caught. He says they put the vape in their sleeve and then lean on their hand to get to it. To exhale the vapor, students are pretending to cough, or blowing the vapor down their shirts.

Many school administrators and experts told us the same thing: this is not the students you would expect.

"What we're finding is that truly the problem itself doesn't discriminate," said Dwulit. "We're finding students in every activity, every academic level."

Starting at a young age

Some of the students caught with vapes aren't even close to driving age.

"I’ve seen kids from, like, 6th and 7th grade already starting," said Jaworski.

Administrators and principals say they have cases and suspensions nearly every week.

"We’ve had as many as 25 to 30 incidents where we’ve had kids with the e-cigarettes on their possession," said Mount Pleasant High School principal Bob Gumbita. " If we have 25 to 30 people in our school using them that we caught, then we have 125 to150 that have them on their possession."

Everyone we talked to agreed that the key to stopping this epidemic is education.

"I've had families come for visits with me just to talk about this and how to help talk to their kids about this," said UPMC associate professor in Allergy and Immunology Allyson Larkin.

More often than not, we're hearing that parents aren't aware of the dangers of vaping.

But not all parents know or understand the dangers.

"I actually had a recent conversation where a parent didn't realize it was the same as smoking, so I think we have to educate the parent as well," said Chartiers Valley Assistant Principal Tim Murray.

It's illegal for anyone under 18 to buy a vape or Juul, but school officials tell us the kids are getting them from siblings or from older students. It's an issue lawmakers also are tackling - because some say the law needs to be changed to get these teenagers help.

Statement from Juul

“JUUL Labs shares a common goal with policy makers, regulators, parents, school officials, and community stakeholders – preventing youth from initiating on nicotine. We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL. We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated. As we said before, our intent was never to have youth use JUUL products. We have taken dramatic action to contribute to solve this problem, which is why we implemented the JUUL Labs Action Plan to address underage use of JUUL products.

“We suspended the distribution of certain flavored JUULpods to traditional retail stores as of November 17, 2018, strengthened the age verification of our industry leading site, eliminated our Facebook and Instagram accounts, and are developing new technology to further limit youth access and use. We are committed to working with lawmakers, the Surgeon General, FDA, state Attorneys General, local municipalities, and community organizations as a transparent and responsible partner in this effort.

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