In this Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, a man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in Portland, Maine. 

As vaping use increases among youth, a program implemented in Amherst County Public Schools in the past few months is serving to educate students about the harmful effects of nicotine and tobacco products.

The division and the Virginia Department of Health have partnered to offer INDEPTH (Intervention for Nicotine Dependence: Education, Prevention, Tobacco and Health), an interactive program that teaches students about nicotine independence and establishing healthy alternatives. Kim Foster, population health community coordinator of the Central Virginia Health District, said the district learned of the new American Lung Association program and wanted to establish it in local school systems, starting with Amherst.

“The biggest thing that concerns us is the increase in usage among teens and, of course, the illnesses and deaths that have been associated with it,” Foster said of presenting facts about vaping to students. “We give them statistics. We talk to them about the addiction component.”

According to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, a survey done collaboratively by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, 4.7 million high school students in the United States used e-cigarettes in 2019, up 54% from 3.05 million in 2018. The percentage of high school-age children reporting past 30-day use of e-cigarettes increased by more than 75% between 2017 and 2018 while use among middle school-aged children increased nearly 50%, according to data in the survey.

As of Dec. 27, 2,561 cases of e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury, or EVALI, have been reported to the CDC from 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, while 55 deaths have been confirmed in 27 states and the District of Columbia, according to the CDC.

U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome Adams on Dec. 18 issued an advisory addressing the epidemic of skyrocketing e-cigarette use among youth. The surge has been fueled by newer cartridge-based devices that have become popular, many of which resemble a USB flash drive, making them easy to conceal, according to the advisory.

At Amherst County High School, students suspended for vaping or having vaping-related paraphernalia are sent to the division’s alternative suspension center, an in-school program that started in 2019. Foster said the new program started in November and for now is geared toward high school students.

The Central Virginia Health District is working with school systems in Appomattox and Bedford counties and the city of Lynchburg to establish the program this semester, she said.

Marie Petrone, Amherst Schools’ supervisor of accountability and student wellness, said through the program students are taught risks associated with vaping, reasons they should stop and how it effects their body. “It’s educational but also trying to support them to quit,” Petrone said.

All nicotine products are banned from school property in Amherst County. Assistant Superintendent William Wells said discipline cases involving vaping grew during the past five years but have leveled off somewhat lately.

Wells said a Juul cartridge, or “pod,” resembles a flash drive and it took a while to educate teachers on how to be on the lookout for them. “When Juul [cartridges] came out, we had to catch up and the kids got ahead of us,” Wells said.

A typical JuuL cartridge contains about as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes, according to Adams’ Dec. 18 advisory. Wells said some students who so far have taken part in the program have been surprised to learn of the chemicals involved in vaping.

“They do seem to get something out of it,” Petrone said. “The statistics surprise them.”

The program is taught by any trained adult in four 50-minute sessions that address a different tobacco-related issue and can be facilitated one-on-one or in a group setting, according to the American Lung Association’s website. Wells said the program doesn’t cost the division anything to administer.

The Trump administration announced Jan. 2 it will prohibit fruit, candy, mint and dessert flavors from small, cartridge-based e-cigarettes that are popular with high school students. But menthol and tobacco-flavored e- cigarettes will be allowed to remain on the market.

The flavor ban also will entirely exempt large, tank-based vaping devices, which are primarily sold in vape shops that cater to adult smokers. The new policy will preserve a significant portion of the multibillion-dollar vaping market. The changes are likely to please both the largest e-cigarette manufacturer, Juul Labs, and thousands of vape shop owners who sell the tank-based systems, which allow users to mix customized flavors.

Adam Al-Masry, store manager of Gorilla Vapes in Forest, said the store requests identification from all customers who do not appear as senior citizens to ensure vaping products are not being sold to anyone younger than age 21.

“My viewpoint is no one under 21 should have this product,” Al-Masry said.

He said he needs more information on the INDEPTH program to have a true opinion on it and doesn’t think any blame should be pointed at the vaping industry when students are educated on nicotine products.

Caffeine, like nicotine, is addictive but businesses that sell it aren’t blamed for its effects on youth, he said.

“We responsibly sell these products,” he said.

For Amherst schools, Wells said the goal is for the health department to train staff so the division can take over leading the program, which is taught in sessions that addresses a different tobacco-related issue.

Foster said the program eventually could expand to reach middle school-age students.

The program includes a lot of one-on-one discussion and getting students to talk about how nicotine use affects their health and futures, as well as how often they vape and their habits, according to Foster.

The discussion also includes the costs and how expensive the habit can become.

“That’s been an eye-opener for a lot of the kids,” Foster said.

The Associated Press contributed. Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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