Smoking is on the rise among North Carolina high school students, and some Wake County teens say their peers are openly getting away with it at schools.
Teen tobacco use rose 1.3 percentage points to 28.8 percent of high school students, according to results from the 2017 N.C. Youth Tobacco Survey released last week. While cigarette usage is down among teenagers, the survey found that e-cigarette usage is rising among high school students.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that provide users with aerosol puffs that typically contain nicotine, and sometimes flavorings like fruit, mint or chocolate. E-cigarettes are banned in many school systems, including Wake County, but some students say school employees don't recognize what the devices look like.
"These sleek devices are being snuck out of class into bathrooms and being openly used in school parking lots before and after-school," Kavya Kumar, a senior at Panther Creek High School in Cary, told Wake school board members at a meeting in May.
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Kumar and other members of the N.C. Child Youth Advisory Council urged the school board to strengthen the district's anti-smoking policy.
E-cigarette usage has exploded in popularity, increasing 894 percent among North Carolina high school students between 2011 and 2017, according to the survey. The survey found that 16.9 percent of high school students said they use e-cigarettes and 23.3 percent say they're considering using them within the next year.
The state survey showed e-cigarettes have been the tobacco product most frequently used by middle and high school students in North Carolina since 2015.
"The use of e-cigarettes by youth is very concerning," State Health Director Betsey Tilson said in a written statement. "Nicotine exposure during adolescence and young adulthood can lead to nicotine addiction, and it harms brain development."
Over the past year, sales have skyrocketed for JUUL e-cigarettes, which now account for more than 60 percent of the U.S. market. JUUL e-cigarettes deliver more nicotine than most competitors and resemble a USB flash drive.
“Students are moving away from traditional cigarettes and instead are opting to use JUULs, e-cigarettes, vapes and similar nicotine products," Iman Dancy, a junior at Enloe High School in Raleigh, told the school board. "However the adults that are actually charged with overseeing students, like administrators and teachers, are often unfamiliar with what these products look like and how they’re being used.”
Dancy and other members of the N.C. Child Youth Advisory Council recommended steps such as greater training for school staff about e-cigarette devices.
Wake County school board vice chairman Jim Martin said the district is listening to the teenagers. One of the changes that the school board's policy committee recommended last month is to revise the district's smoking policy to specifically ban nicotine products.
"It’s important that we talk about tobacco and nicotine because not everything comes from tobacco," Martin said.
The state results were based on a survey of more than 6,300 middle school and high school students conducted in the fall. But Wake County students didn't participate because school officials said they didn't want to cut into instructional time.
Some health advocates feared Wake's absence would invalidate the accuracy of the survey results. But even with Wake's absence, the statewide results are still a valid representation of North Carolina's middle school and high school student population, according to Kelly Haight, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
In the absence of the state survey, the N.C. Child Youth Advisory Council surveyed 200 Wake County high school students. The survey found that 25 percent of students said they use tobacco products, leading the council to extrapolate what the number is across North Carolina's largest school district.
“Even if this number isn’t exactly right, this puts somewhere around 10,000 Wake County high schoolers currently using tobacco products," Jacob Turner, a junior at Enloe High, told the school board. "What this means is that’s there’s not a Wake County school and there’s not a Wake County student that isn’t being affected by this.’
The Associated Press contributed to this report.