The contraband was scattered across a large conference table last week at North Central High School.
Principal Steve Fisk pondered the paraphernalia, the meager spoils of a cat-and-mouse game that’s played out every day in locker rooms and bathroom stalls in every high school in America.
On the table were dozens of e-cigarettes, every manner of vaping devices and two crumpled cigarette butts.
“We don’t see too many of these anymore,” Fisk said of the butts.
Across the table, Glover Middle School Principal Mark Lund recalled the days of busting kids for cigarettes: the yellowed teeth, the smell and the shame.
“For adolescents, that was a big negative – how they looked and how they smelled,” Lund said. “Now they come out of the bathroom smelling like candy.”
At Glover, some who use vaping devices are as young as 10. They are the new generation of young nicotine addicts, and hundreds of them live in Spokane.
“It’s an epidemic, and it’s happening here,” Fisk said.
Spokane’s new health scare
According to a national report released last month, vaping was the second-most common form of substance abuse, behind alcohol, among teens and adolescents.
The study, called Monitoring the Future, showed that 17.6 percent of eighth-graders, 32.3 percent of high school sophomores and 37.3 percent of seniors reporting vaping during the past year.
Despite the efforts of health officials, educators and parents, those numbers are up substantially from the year before.
“No one can look at the data and say there’s no problem,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said last month.
“We cannot allow a whole new generation to become addicted to nicotine,” said Gottlieb, who recently declared youth vaping an “epidemic” and threatened to halt sales of flavored electronic cigarettes if major manufacturers can’t show more evidence they’re doing enough to keep them away from minors.
Some experts consider e-cigarettes to be safer than traditional smokes, but the data is too tentative for researchers to understand the long-term health effects.
For that reason, some public health experts call today’s vaping teens a “guinea pig generation.”
Unlike some national trends, this one didn’t leave Spokane behind. Instead, it has settled like a sweet mist in almost every school in Spokane.
According to Paige McGowan, program coordinator for the Tobacco, Vaping and Marijuana Prevention Program at the Spokane Regional Health District, e-cigarettes “weren’t even on the radar” until 2014.
That’s when a survey showed that 26 percent of Spokane County 10th-graders reported using e-cigs or vaping devices.
“It was overnight,” McGowan said. “All of a sudden vaping is a thing, and we have vaping products widely available in Spokane.”
For anyone 18 years or older, they’re available not only at specialty stores, but hundreds of convenience stores.
An obvious problem for schools is that many high-schoolers are 18, and they purchase the devices for underage friends.
Ashley Gould, the chief administrative officer of Juul, said the company’s products are intended solely for adults who want to quit smoking.
“We do not want kids using our products,” she told the New York Times. “Our product is not only not for kids, it’s not for non-nicotine users.”
Yet Juuls and other products sit behind the counter, bright packages holding enticing flavors.
“Like gummi bear and cucumber,” said Lund, who has confiscated the devices from dozens of seventh- and eighth-graders.
Moments later, Shawn Jordan, the supervisor of secondary education for Spokane Public Schools, carries in another box. One of the vaping cylinders had sprung a leak, filling the room with the aroma of overly-sweet strawberries.
Seizing the moment, Fisk grabbed his phone and announced that vapes are available in 7,750 flavors under 460 brands.
“It’s a problem all right,” Fisk said.
A hidden menace
The problem for schools is that vaping devices are difficult to detect.
Even during class, a student can pin the device to a shirt collar or bra strap, lean over and take a hit, as most vapes raise only the slightest plume.
At North Central, Fisk and his staff follow their noses in a ritual that steals hundreds of work hours.
“You walk into a bathroom and you smell that typical fragrance that isn’t air freshener and it’s not a cigarette,” Fisk said. “But it definitely has a sweet smell and then you follow up.”
After confiscating the devices, Spokane school officials take extensive corrective measures.
At North Central, for example, a first offense means one to two weeks of lunch detention, plus mandatory reading of a research report on the health risks of vaping. The offender also must write a commentary on the subject.
Moreover, parents are contacted and the confiscated devices destroyed.
“In the majority of cases the parents were not aware that their kids had them,” Fisk said.
Others knew about the problem, but rationalized that vaping was less hazardous than smoking.
According to Jordan, the problem is growing throughout Spokane Public Schools. During the 2016-17 school year, schools reported 125 incidents, mostly related to vaping.
That number soared to 186 last year and is poised to do so again; halfway through the current school year, officials have reported 218 incidents, of which 11 occurred at elementary schools.
A culture war is joined
Five years ago, the Spokane Regional Health District engaged students at Mica Peak, an alternative school in the Central Valley School District.
“Over the years our conversation has shifted from combustible cigarettes to vaping,” said AJ Sanders, a member of the Spokane Regional Health Board.
More concerning, Sanders said, was the revelation from students throughout Spokane County that some students now list vaping as a “hobby.”
For others, vaping is the latest way to fit in with peers, some of whom wear pens on a necklace in mimicry of how some vapes are carried.
But despite the worrisome trends, Lund sees hope that the cure will come from the majority of kids who don’t carry vaping devices in their backpacks.
“A lot of kids are so frustrated,” Lund said. “People are getting tired of it.”