Ridgefield High School students combat vaping

Vaping — the use of electronic cigarettes containing liquidized nicotine — has become popular among young people throughout the nation, and Ridgefield High School is no different.

In response to the rising trend, RHS health teacher Margaret Meriwether came up with an assignment for her students: Create a public service announcement (PSA) about vaping that would resonate with their peers.

“We were just trying to address vaping as an issue,” said Meriwether.

She was inspired by “One Picture, Six Words,” a campaign put together by the Centers for Disease Control to end domestic violence and suicide.

“I thought it was just kind of neat — quick to the point, and something to add for the TVs to make things a little bit more visible,” Meriwether said.

The student projects are displayed on TVs throughout the school, and are periodically posted on the high school’s Twitter page.

Up to 80 students completed the assignment, Meriwether said.

Five of them — all seniors — agreed to speak with The Press during an interview after school.

All said they know someone who vapes, but none could think of anyone who smokes cigarettes.

“It’s definitely a young person thing,” said Anna Doman.

“Under 30,” added Jessica Fine.

The under-30 crowd

Fine based her project on the “Gru’s plan” meme — a poster board presentation from the film Despicable Me where the villain plans to take over the world in three steps.

“Start vaping,” reads the first slide.

“Impress girls,” reads the second.

Then the hook — “get addicted.”

She still gets comments from friends who see the image around school.

“It’s a little weird,” she admitted with a laugh.

Another one of Meriwether’s students, Danielle Butz, created a project with an image the reads “Losing a battle? Ask for help” with the hashtag #stopvaping over a camouflage background.

Butz said her motivation was based on the fact she thinks teens try vaping to impress their friends.

“It’s not like you’re impressing a single person but you’re trying to prove you’re accepted into a group,” added Tadd Long.

His public service announcement has the words “vaping will cost you too much” above the slogan “stop vaping” and a crossed out vape.

Overblown problem?

All of the seniors seemed quick to dispel the notion that concern about vaping has been overblown or inflated.

“I think it’s a pretty big problem at Ridgefield High School,” said Doman.

Her PSA put the words “don’t be the ‘guinea pig’ generation” over a cloud of exhaled smoke.

“The amount of kids that bring vapes to school and vape in the bathroom — it’s kind of become a huge blown-up issue just in the last four years, and especially with the Juul coming out,” she said.

Juul, a San Francisco-based manufacturer of vaporizers and nicotine pods that work with its device, accounts for about 70% of the U.S. market in e-cigarettes, according to the Food Drug and Administration (FDA).

Health risks

While vapes have been marketed as alternative to traditional, combustible cigarettes and cigars for those who want to quit smoking, Doman seemed to question the long-term effects of vaping.

She pointed out that before cigarettes were linked to cancer, smoking was not seen as a concern.

“What are we not getting?” she asked. “[What’s] going to happen to my generation in the future with vaping?”

But kids who vape might not be thinking that far ahead.

Butz said students don’t think about the future when it comes to vaping, even if they’re focused on their grades and their life ahead in college and beyond.

Students are focused on their job, their family, but “they’re not looking at their future in 20 years thinking about their health,” she said.

Nikki Rdzanek agreed.

“It’s kind of hard to visualize when you’re a kid. Like with smoking, 40 years down the road you might have lung cancer. It’s kind of hard to picture that now when there’s so many other things to worry about like school, homework, social standing,” she said.

Actual health risks, such as “popcorn lung,” either are not known, or are seen as a joke, she said.

Her project — an X-ray of human lungs superimposed with popcorn, and the words “popcorn lung isn’t cool; don’t Juul” — referred to a lung condition that has affected some workers at a microwave popcorn manufacturer. The workers handled flavoring chemicals containing diacetyl, which has also been used in some vape flavors.

Long said he’s concerned that students are “totally overlooking” their physical and mental health.

“We’ve been so focused on school or focused on everything that’s been going on in our lives, we just overlook our own health sometimes and might resort to these alternatives without evaluating our health,” he said.  

Rdzanek said she thinks some see vaping as a “coping mechanism,” to handle the stresses of student life.

Fine agreed.

“When kids are stressed and acting out, they’re trying to just let loose,” she said.

Fixing the problem

Other schools have struggled with the issue.

In Milford, Jonathan Law High School closed down bathrooms in certain parts of the school and added a signup sheet with a staff member on hall duty to combat the problem.

Long said the best step RHS has taken was to introduce in-school clinics to help users quit vaping.

“I don’t vape so I didn’t have to go to the clinics, but I definitely see an opportunity like that for a person to find a way to better themselves and find a way to get help voluntarily as really a strong way to hope cope with this issue,” he said.

Meriwether noted that nobody came to the first clinic that was held.

“But we’re going to keep offering it,” she added. “We used to provide smoking cessation clinics for many years, and they were very popular until they weren’t because no one was smoking — and that was wonderful.”

Most seemed to agree the devices — which are illegal to sell to anyone under the age of 18 in Connecticut, just like traditional cigarettes — have been aimed at young people.

“They’re definitely advertised to young people,” said Doman. “We’ve looked at their advertising — they say it’s not but ... it’s definitely advertised for people our age.”

In November, Juul said that it would delete some of its social media accounts, amidst criticism that its advertising targeted minors. That same month the FDA banned the sale of flavored vapes outside of dedicated vape shops, two days after Juul’s maker announced it would be halting the sale of four of its flavors to retail stores.

“Our intent was never to have youth use JUUL products,” the company said in a press release.

The students didn’t seem to buy it.

“By the time they decided to make the changes, it had already reached so many people,” said Butz.