Vaping is becoming more and more popular and with it comes a new battle for schools. Jodi Bryant talks to schools and teens about what they see happening in our communities.
High school students' toilet breaks during class time are being monitored at a Northland high school as teachers across the region battle the scourge of vaping.
Extra security cameras were also being installed in an effort to curb developing vaping habits among students.
The Advocate has spoken to school leaders across the region who are becoming increasingly concerned with students shifting to vaping in class.
South of Whangārei, Otamatea High School acting principal Dirk Smyth said the move to monitor the frequency of students' toilet breaks during class time was an effort to clamp down on vaping. This was also behind the installation of additional cameras around the school.
Smyth said staff knew of at least 20 of the school's 480 students who vaped across Years 7-13, particularly Year 10. There had been 26 incidents – around two per week – this year in which students had been caught vaping or with vaping devices.
This had led to warning letters sent home with a disciplinary process for repeat offenders. The school had also been proactive in talking about the risks of vaping at assembly.
Smyth said it was a virtually non-existent problem last year and he feared students were experimenting with their health.
"Students usually start with the nicotine-free vaping liquid but we are seeing more students starting to take up nicotine-containing liquids. It is a major distraction from learning, and a gateway into nicotine addiction."
Whangārei Boys' High School (WBHS) principal Karen Gilbert-Smith said vaping was an escalating problem. She said principals were not supported in tackling it and some had even resorted to installing vape detectors.
"It's a real shame because I really feel like we've knocked smoking on the head but now we've come here."
She said around 10-15 boys were caught vaping a week, but it was difficult to catch those doing it as vape technology led to smaller devices that were odourless, with invisible vapour.
"There is some brazen behaviour around doing it in class. It's become a bit of a challenge to see if they can get away with it."
School toilets and the nearby cycleway were popular places for students to vape, she said.
"We see a puff of smoke going up but can't quite identify as to who's responsible as they're such small devices now that they're easily concealed. It's really hard to get on top of."
Gilbert-Smith said the school had not introduced vape detectors because of the significant cost.
"From a detection point of view, we can install the sensors but the question is, is that a good use of school funds because there's a benefit but not an educational benefit."
As well as confiscation, she said students would be tasked with a community service or be asked to conduct a project involving research around vaping. Parents were also notified.
She said all year levels at the school were vaping and the laws around the supply for under-18s appeared to be completely ignored.
Whangārei Girls' High School principal Anne Cooper said vaping was a topic of keen interest at the recent Secondary Principals' Association of New Zealand (SPANZ) Conference.
"Vaping is definitely becoming prolific and our students are part of that too. It is an interesting issue as most information emphasises that it is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol. The long-term effects of vaping are largely unknown but we do know that many of the vapes now contain nicotine."
Whangārei Intermediate School principal Hayley Read said vaping was also seen in the Year 7 and 8 level school, though this was not a weekly occurrence.
Consequences included talking with parents, although she said "some of the parents condone it, maybe because they think it's better than smoking".
Ngā Tai Ora – Public Health Northland's smoke-free adviser Bridget Rowse said that despite fielding cries for help, they were not supported themselves to help people quit vaping or to assist those who had become addicted.
"There is currently no funded programme that addresses the rise of vaping in the youth community, all advice currently happens through information on the Ministry (of Health) website."
The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation New Zealand's vaping education site had almost 5000 new users visiting its Don't Get Sucked In website in four months this year. Of those, there were 3500 visits and almost 10,000 page views from mid-May to mid-June. The foundation had received an increasing number of enquiries and requests from schools and teachers.
Said Rowse: "Our stop smoking services are seeing people quitting smoking using vapes and many of those people now are asking these stop smoking services for support to stop vaping. Unfortunately, our stop smoking services are not funded or equipped to help. Ministry of Health is telling our stop smoking services to 'focus on getting people off tobacco, as that is more harmful'."
She said the design and size of the vapes were attractive to the youth market. Many parents would not even know their child was vaping as the newer devices looked like a USB memory stick and did not emit vapour. With no large plumes of vape breathed out, they were undetectable in classrooms.
"We know that it is likely these devices contain nicotine and, often when we ask youth who vape if their vape contains nicotine, they, 'don't know' - they are more interested in what tricks they can perform or whether their device is the latest one on the market."
It meant teenagers could become unwittingly addicted and not realise their moods were linked to nicotine withdrawal rather than hormonal changes. She said three or four puffs on a vape delivered the equivalent amount of nicotine from one cigarette.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said: "Stop smoking services provide multi-sessional behaviour support and nicotine replacement therapy to smokers wanting to quit and they also support people who want to switch to less harmful products, such as vaping.
"The ministry recommends that vapers should have a long-term goal to quit vaping too, but only when they feel sure they won't go back to smoking. Specialist vape retailers are best placed to support people to reduce their nicotine concentration."
Further information can be found at: https://vapingfacts.health.nz/
Teen vaper speaks
"I am 18 years old and I started vaping around mid-2019. I wasn't a previous smoker - I just started vaping because I guess just because everyone was doing it and I just felt like I should give it a go as well.
"At the beginning of 2020, I quit vaping because I was joining the Defence Force. Once I joined everything was going great, then it started getting stressful and then Covid happened. Most people were already smoking and vaping but then I bought me a new one when I started back up, and now I've been doing it to this day since.
"I've always wanted to stop and quit but I am finding it hard to quit. It's come to a point where I must have it every day. The addiction is very bad I didn't think it was that bad until I realised that I was addicted when I woke up and it was the first thing on my mind. There are no side effects that I know of at the moment and I don't know what it does to people in the future.
"I wish someone was there to tell me at the very beginning to not even start. I just hope I can encourage other people to not go near smokes or vapes because the nicotine is very addictive."