Vaping-Related Respiratory Illness Creates Urgency in Public Schools

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DES MOINES, Iowa — To date, there are 13 cases of severe respiratory illness related to vaping in Iowa. With teens increasingly using e-cigarettes and vaping pens, local school districts are on high alert.

Although it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to buy, sell, or use any kind of vaping product, teens somehow still gain access to them. According to a 2018 Iowa Youth Survey, almost a quarter of 11th grade students (23 percent) reported use of e-cigarettes in the past month, along with 8 percent of eighth graders and 2 percent of sixth graders.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), one of the biggest factors affecting this trend is how vaping products are now marketed to the public.

“Two years ago when a certain device came on the market, marketing changed radically and so we’ve definitely seen nationwide an increase in youth use rates … it’s interesting that the marketing changed from helping smokers quit to more of a lifestyle product,” said IDPH community health consultant Garin Buttermore. 

Last July, Buttermore says IDPH started sending out additional resources to school districts across the state. Included were descriptions of new vaping products and how they could be disguised as pens or flash drives. The IDPH is also calling for school districts to create stricter policies surrounding smoking on school properties.

“Seventy-seven percent or more of the schools in Iowa have a policy that prevents the use of those products, even among adults. But still 25 to 27 percent of policies just say no smoking, or some of them say no tobacco, but some of the vape products are so new that some schools haven’t updated their policy,” said Buttermore. 

Des Moines Public School District is aware that students vape and has been trying to combat the trend by utilizing their school nurses as a resource for students, teachers and parents.

“We refer a lot to the National Association of School Nurses,” said Des Moines Public School District health services supervisor Diane Gladson. “It has some excellent material that kind of explains about youth, the addiction of nicotine and how it affects your whole body. And then we are always in constant contact with parents and making sure they’re aware of what our concerns are and we kind of work together as a unit.”

Since students know that vaping is illegal, Gladson says it can be hard to identify students who are at risk but that the schools try hard to educate students on the dangers of nicotine.

“As an adult and as educators, we have to really be out there in the front lines and explain ahead of time before they get addicted, that this is harmful to their bodies, not only to their lungs, but their brains,” said Gladson.

Multiple organizations like YSS, ISTEP and D.A.R.E. Iowa also working to include vaping in their educational outreach across the state. ISTEP, a student lead movement against tobacco, is even holding a free summit next month for grades seven through 12. Students will be able to attend educational seminars and will learn in-depth the dangers of tobacco and nicotine.

Currently, the Des Moines Public School District identifies vaping as a form of smoking, and according to their handbook, there is no smoking allowed on any school properties districtwide. Repeat offenders are at risk for suspension and even expulsion. Although the district handbook lays out these strict guidelines, various individual school handbooks are different. Some specifically mention vaping, but others don’t, which is something Buttermore is hoping will become more consistent in schools across the state.

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