West: School district tackles teen vaping

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WEST, Texas (KWTX) At the request of parents, a local school district is tackling a growing trend among teenagers: vaping.

(Photo by Rissa Shaw)

The West Independent School District hosted a program at its administration building Tuesday night on the dangers of teen vaping.

"At one point in education, we could use scare tactics," said Sharon Hlavenka, a counselor at West High School. "But I think our kids see so much now through social media, everything is at their fingertips, so for me, my approach now is more education."

Like most (if not all) school districts, West ISD has seen an uptick in student e-cigarette use.

"It's a growing number, definitely, and so it is a concern? Absolutely, because we have seen the growth over the last couple years," said Hlavenka. "Some of them have said 'I try to leave it in my car,' but they need that hit at some point throughout the day to make it through the day because the addiction is so strong, and that's what so alarming, one pod is equal to a pack of cigarettes, and they're going through a pod a day in some cases."

School district leaders brought in Texas A&M University's Agrilife Extension program for Alcohol and Drug Awareness to educate parents and their kids about the trend health experts are calling an 'addiction epidemic.'

"More and more of them (children) are experimenting and vaping using their e-cigarettes, and because of nicotine content and the other dangerous chemicals that pens contain, it's definitely, in our opinion and CDC research, a significant health hazard," said Ben Smith, Watch UR BAC Program Coordinator.

Smith says the free educational vaping program he provides to school districts through TAMU has been in higher demand "for sure."

"We're doing more and more of these, yes," said Smith.

He sees vaping as a gateway to smoking cigarettes.

"A lot of the e-cigarettes, years back, were promoted and marketed as being a means of quitting tobacco cigarettes," said Smith. "But now, more of the marketing seems to be targeting young people, and they're starting with vaping, not tobacco, they thought vaping was really cool and wanted to be part of the trend so they started vaping before tobacco smoking."

Some parents in attendance brought their sons and daughters who vape.

"Scientists don't even know what can come with vaping, the side effects of it yet, and I really don't want my son to be one of the first ones we're doing research on to find out why my son died because he was vaping," said Carlos Cross, father of an eleventh-grader at West High.

Cross says he came to the presentation with his son in hopes something he hears will trigger him to quit vaping.

"I'm hoping that he learns and he makes the right decisions based on his future, because smoking at 16 can stun his future, it can stop him from having a long life, and it's not worth it," said Cross.

Vaping is not allowed at West ISD and comes with disciplinary consequences.

"Some of them start a habit really early in life that's hard to kick and has long lasting consequences, and so anything we can do now to let them know somebody cares, and that it's not that we're just preaching to them but that we have a vested interest in their well-being, is important to me," said Hlavenka. "So it really is not as much about the punishment as it is the care and concern as to why we're doing what we're doing."

Cross says his son has been caught at school several times vaping in the bathroom with friends, and he worries he's addicted.

"We know it's a problem, and we don't know how he's getting a hold of it," said Cross. "I've talked to him about it and it still continues, so only time will tell (if he will change), I'm going to talk about what he learned when he gets home and if it's gearing him toward stopping."

The TAMU presentation was the second vaping-related program West ISD has hosted in recent months to bring awareness to students, parents and staff; Hlavenka says they hosted another program called "A Dose of Reality" that also touched on vaping with students in grades 6-12.

"This is my hometown, so part of the reason I got into counseling and left the classroom was because of the things that our students were dealing with," said Hlavenka. "So for me, it's looking out for their entire well-being, not just their academic piece but their social emotional piece as well, their health in general."

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, as of Tuesday, in addition to one death, the agency had identified 189 cases of lung injury associated with vaping, and about one-quarter of those affected are minors.

"The increased young-use of vaping has just started in the last couple years, so I'm concerned about our country's future and the number of people that are probably going to have some long-term lung issues later--10, 15, 20 years down the road," said Smith.

Of the 189 cases reported, 23 came from Central Texas, however, Waco-McLennan County Public Health District officials said Tuesday none of them were theirs.

Bell County public health officials wouldn't say whether or not they had any reported cases, but according to the director, any cases they would have would be investigated by the state because they don't have anyone in-house trained to do it.

State health officials confirmed to KWTX, they are investigating reports for Bell County.

According to the DSHS website, nationally, 2, 172 cases of vaping associated lung injury have been reported across 49 states, and the Texas agency was working with the CDC, FDA and other states in identifying commonalities to determine a cause.

Until more is learned, DSHS officials say people should consider not using e-cigarettes.

According to the DSHS website, symptoms include: difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and coughing, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

"Clinicians should ask patients with these symptoms about a history of vaping, gather as much information as possible about suspected cases, and report them to DSHS," the website states.