For the Milton Independent

Bubblegum, mango, strawberry, chocolate are all fruitful flavors that contrast with the stark, musty smell of cigarettes. But now, they’re the smell of nicotine, too.

Among teenagers, smoking devices resembling pens, USB drives and inhalers are replacing conventional cigarettes. With appealing aromas and minimal smoke emission, detecting smoking is not as easy as it once was.

Milton school administrators say this proposes a whole new challenge. As such, the district hosted a forum on vaping and e-cigarettes April 19 at the high school library.

“We got caught this year without really seeing it coming,” Milton High School co-principal MaryJane Stinson told the parents assembled that Thursday night, noting MHS has dealt with approximately 10 alternative smoking cases this year. “We were learning along the way.”

Vermont health educator Gayle Finkelstein of the Northern New England Poison Center discussed modern forms of smoking at Milton High School. (Kaylee Sullivan)

Stinson and co-principal Anne Blake invited Vermont health educator Gayle Finkelstein of the Northern New England Poison Center to speak at the forum.

The principals and three Milton mothers who attended are all passionate about getting a certain message across to kids: They’re not just inhaling flavored air.

Kids don’t seem to understand the products contain nicotine, the principals said.

A highly addictive chemical derived from tobacco, nicotine is traditionally found in cigarettes. But seven years ago, the first e-cigarette hit the United States market and quickly founded today’s $3 billion global industry.

An e-cigarette, or electronic delivery device, resembles a re-chargeable pen and is filled with liquid nicotine, which heats up and creates vapor. Using e-cigs or similar devices is commonly referred to as “vaping.”

People trying to quit smoking cigarettes often vape to try and wean off nicotine. They start by filling their pens with high nicotine content cartridges, such as 24 mg, and slowly attempt to make their way to 0 mg refills, Finkelstein explained.

Because e-cigarettes are still in their infancy, there’s not enough credible data to prove if they’re an effective form of cessation, Finkelstein added.

Given its newness, “vaping” protocol is currently not written into school policies, but Stinson said administrators plan to re-work its language. For now, MHS operates under the tobacco policy.

If caught with a nicotine product, a student’s first offense warrants parent notification, education through the school nurse and a ticket from Milton Police school resource officer Sgt. Scott Philbrook.

Individuals must be 18 years old to buy a vaping device, but many order them online and bypass the typical in-store ID check, Stinson said. If they’re under 18, students break the law in two ways: purchasing the device and bringing it on school property.

Ticketing is a new procedure this year, Stinson added, because administrators were sick of the increasing violations.

When caught a second time, students face suspension, parent notification and more education. If addicted, the teen is referred to Spectrum, a Burlington-based youth social services organization. Punishments continue to climb from there.

Student-athletes who vape either on or off school property are suspended from their sport for two weeks after a first offense, potentially one year after the second and possibly their entire remaining career on the third.

Like drinking underage and smoking marijuana, using these “nicotine-delivery devices” has become a nationwide social activity, Finkelstein noted. Kids who never would have considered smoking cigarettes are now inhaling nicotine without realizing its effect.

Milton parents Kristen Chalmers, left, and Erika Humphrey, right, learned about vaping, juuling and other forms of possibly poisonous forms of smoking at an April 19 forum in the Milton High School library. (Kaylee Sullivan)

Parent Erika Humphrey questioned if all alternative smoking devices are harmful, or if some solely contain flavor and not nicotine.

Not all devices contain the chemical, Finkelstein confirmed, but most do — even if the label doesn’t make it clear. Advertising plays a large role in the miseducation, she said, because companies market the devices as the new, harmless “cool thing to do.”

Determining which students are taking part in the trend is difficult to determine, the principals said.

“It could just be the hand lotion in a girl’s bag,” Blake said of vape pens’ fruity aromas. It could be perfume or someone chewing a piece of gum. To search a student’s bag for contraband, though, she needs a succinct reason.

“That you smell nice is not always the best reason,” Blake noted.

When Finkelstein showed the principals the inhaler-like device, the duo was astounded. 

“We’re going to have to call their doctors to see if kids really have asthma,” Stinson realized.

As for Juuls, the USB lookalikes, one pod of liquid flavor has the same amount of nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes, Finkelstein noted. An individual’s exposure depends on how many puffs they take per day.

A person’s likelihood of being poisoned, or inhaling a toxic dose, depends on many factors, including age, weight, general health and tolerance and the type of device used, she said.

Students have told principals the substance calms them, but Finkelstein noted it can also lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, anxiety and a racing heart.

“It can have lasting effects on the brain,” Finkelstein read, prompting parents to take out their phones and snap a photograph of the Powerpoint slide.

Last week’s group explored how to get the word out to students, parents and coaches. Stinson said the district plans to inform educators on the topic and possibly address it at next August’s district-wide parent-student meeting and the fall, winter and spring athlete assemblies.

“You don’t know what you’re seeing until you know what you’re looking for,” Blake said.