On May 10, a caller contacted the Nogales Police Department to report a fifth-grade student in possession of a vape pen.
Yamile Lara doesn’t find that news surprising.
“Instagram influencers, they advertise a lot of vaping,” she said. “And with the colorfulness … it goes more towards a younger audience. That’s why it came to the elementary child.”
Lara, a high school senior, is a member of the Mariposa Youth Coalition. The student organization, a subset of the Mariposa Community Health Center, educates people on the health effects of tobacco use and vaping.
The latter has become increasingly common among young people in Santa Cruz County, according to local students who spoke to the NI. School administrators, along with police and sheriff’s dispatch reports, also support that observation.
“It’s so normal. Everyone does it,” said Grecia Morales, another student in MYC. Morales tries to discourage her own friends from the practice, she said, but that involves walking a fine line.
“You don’t want to attack them, but you also want to alert them,” she added.
The practice involves heating a liquid – which usually contains nicotine or THC – in an electronic cigarette, or vape pen. Since hitting the market in 2007, the trend has grown nationally among young people, despite a new federal law enacted in late 2019 that forbids the sale of tobacco products such as as e-cigarettes and e-liquids to anyone under 21.
More than 2 million U.S. high school and middle school students reported they were vaping in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the past seven years since Hector Estrada began working in school administration, “vaping has considerably increased,” the Rio Rico High School principal told the NI this month. He said the trend has been particularly noticible concerning tobacco.
Staff with Patagonia Public Schools and Nogales Unified School District described a similar trend, adding that vape pens are small and sometimes difficult to identify.
“They’re easier and smaller and less breakable,” noted Kenny Hayes, superintendent of Patagonia Public Schools, who observed an increase in usage at Patagonia Union High School.
So far this school year, Estrada estimated, about 50 percent of all disciplinary infractions at RRHS involved vaping. Estrada and students in the Mariposa Youth Coalition noted various reasons behind the trend, including peer pressure, targeted advertisements, and stress.
“Kids are vaping because it’s cool, kids are vaping to have fun,” Estrada added. “Kids are vaping to cope.”
When Lara sees vaping portrayed on social media, she’s reminded of candy, she told the NI.
“The colors, the flavors,” she said. “It’s mostly advertised, I believe, for children.”
Lara’s not alone in that suspicion. In 2020, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against e-cigarette manufacturer Juul, alleging the company had “attracted young people with its youth-focused advertising.” By the fall of 2021, Juul agreed to pay $14.5 million to the state.
Other state attorney general offices – from Massachusetts to Washington – have filed similar suits against Juul for what they allege to be purposeful marketing toward children.
Students with MYC noted that the imagery of vaping can create the impression that e-cigarettes do not cause harm. Flavors are various, ranging from bubblegum and cotton candy, to pink lemonade and even pumpkin spice latte.
“Someone might not like cherry, but they might like cookies and cream, you know?” noted Luis Andrade, the security services director at the Nogales Unified School District.
What’s more, Andrade added, users can purchase products over the internet – allowing even more options.
“You hear about cigarettes, you hear about lung cancer, throat cancer,” said Juan Mezquita, another member of MYC. “But when you think about vapes, it’s just something colorful and something cool.”
However, data from the CDC associate the practice with potential lung injury, hospitalization and, in some cases, death.
A nationwide CDC study reported more than 2,700 hospitalizations for e-cigarette-related lung injury between March 2019 and February 2020. During the same time span, the CDC documented 68 related deaths. The median age for the hospitalizations and deaths was 24 years old, suggesting that young people are not necessarily immune to the health risks.
Vaping at middle and high schools
Call logs from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, along with the Nogales Police Department, also hint at vaping’s local presence.
On April 4, the Sheriff’s Office received a call detailing surveillance footage of a Patagonia Union High School coach vaping with students. The group, according to dispatch logs, had been vaping on a school bus. The coach resigned following the incident.
On March 29, and then again on March 31, sheriff’s dispatch received calls reporting student possession of a “cake vape” at Calabasas Middle School in Rio Rico. Incidents at the middle school have repeatedly appeared in sheriff’s call logs. On at least two occasions in March, someone at the school called the sheriff’s office to report student possession of pens with marijuana.
Similar incidents – like the May 10 call reporting a fifth-grade student in possession of a “nicotine pen” – have shown up in NPD reports. In another instance from Jan. 10, NPD call logs showed a report of four students in an unspecified location in Rio Rico exhibiting dilated eyes after vaping what was suspected to be marijuana.
Addressing the ‘why’
If a student is caught vaping at RRHS, Estrada noted, out-of-school suspension is generally in the cards.
However, during the 2021-2022 school year, the high school began offering an alternative option: if students chose to take a weekly course on substance use disorder, their suspension would be reduced considerably. During the course, which runs an hour and a half, students learn about the health risks of vaping, along with recovery and wellness tactics, through a partnership with Circles of Peace, a Nogales-based nonprofit.
So far, Estrada estimated about 35 percent of students caught vaping choose to participate in the substance use disorder curriculum. The other 65 percent, he said, take the full suspension.
Meanwhile, he added, faculty are working to revamp the program next year – toying with the idea of holding the course during a lunch hour, rather than after school.
In Patagonia, students are entered into several tiers of intervention. For all enrolled students – whether they’re vaping or not – Patagonia Union High School provides a leadership class to address substance use disorder, among other topics like self-esteem. Counseling is provided, Hayes said, for those caught.
“We’re trying to expand our Tier 3 approach,” he added, which would mean one-on-one intervention for students.
The consequences are generally the same whether the student is caught with nicotine or a suspected THC vape product, Hayes said, since proving that a substance contains THC would require sending it to a lab for testing.
Both Estrada and Hayes stressed that simply suspending a student doesn’t provide a solution.
“We didn’t want to just give punitive consequences without addressing the why,” Estrada said. “Why are you doing it? A lot of times kids do it because of their friends.”
Still, he added, there could be other factors – like using vaping to cope with traumatic events.
And, as Morales of MYC noted, it can be used as a stress reliever.
“I think a lot of people use it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I have a test, or a final, and I have this project,’” she said. “And they’re like, ‘Oh, well, I have some wax.’ Like, that’s their solution for that.”
At local community events – like the recent Nogales Marathon and Health Fair – student members of MYC set up activities that can quiz and educate young people on tobacco use.
They try to make it eventful for kids – organizing big Jenga games, dart competitions and pie-throwing. The latter was especially popular, MYC member Victoria Silva said.
“That one got kids really excited,” Silva grinned. “And they actually learned a lot in that one. Because they kept asking questions and questions.”
Nationally, it’s far more common for high school students to take up vaping, as opposed to younger children. The CDC study in 2021 accounted for about 11.3 percent of high school students currently vaping, compared to just 2.8 percent of middle school students.
Still, local dispatch reports show that middle school students – and even elementary – are not immune to the draw of vaping.
Nogales High School senior Rene Romero noted that there’s a strength in educating children about tobacco and smoking, as opposed to teens and adults who may have already started using substances.
“If you start with them young, they’re more likely to be influenced,” said Romero, another member of MYC. “So better to influence them with better things.”