Sitting in class one day last year, Shyann Selleck counted up to five kids sneaking a “hit” from their vape pens without the teacher noticing.
“I’m like, I’m not going to say anything, ya’ll are just not very bright,” said Selleck, 16, a junior at North Montgomery High School.
Health experts and anti-tobacco advocates have long warned teens about the risks of vaping. But a recent outbreak of severe breathing illnesses in more than 20 states, including Indiana — primarily among adolescents and young adults who’ve used e-cigarettes — is heightening concerns about the products.
One person has died and nearly 200 other people have been sickened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many states have alerted the CDC to more possible cases.
Out of 18 possible cases officials in Indiana are investigating, seven have been confirmed, said Indiana State Department of Health spokesperson Megan Wade-Taxter.
No single vaping product or compound has been pinpointed in all of the cases, officials say. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working with the CDC and state health departments to gather information on any products or substances involved.
The outbreak comes as youth e-cigarette use is on the rise. Almost 20% of high school students and 5% of middle school students vape, according to the FDA. From 2017-18, e-cigarette use jumped 79% among high school students and 48% among middle school students, FDA figures show.
“It’s some of my best students academically, it’s some of my worst students academically,” said Jon Guthrie, assistant principal at North Montgomery, where at least four students have already been caught with e-cigarettes this year. There were 50 cases last year.
Schools are teaching about the dangers of nicotine and vaping in health and science classes. New education courses are available for student athletes. The local chapters of Students Against Destructive Decisions have also organized campaigns urging their peers to avoid or stop using e-cigarettes.
Drug awareness programs are also part of the lesson plans in middle school, where vaping has been reported among older students.
“I get the feeling that it picks up more at the high school level, but that’s not to say that we haven’t been off-limits at the middle school,” Crawfordsville Middle School principal Brent Bokhart said.
When e-cigarettes first hit the market, teachers at Southmont High School were shown examples of popular vape pens, which often resemble flash drives. No students have been caught vaping so far this year, administrators say.
“We’re going to have to continue to be vigilant because we’re going against a billion-dollar industry,” principal Mike Tricker said.
Under pressure from the FDA, Juul Labs Inc. and other popular e-cigarette companies have enacted new policies to try to prevent youth from using their products.
Juul pulled flavored pods from retail stores and shut down its social media accounts. The company also tightened age-verification controls on its website and supports raising the minimum purchasing age for all tobacco products to 21.
“We don’t anyone who doesn’t smoke, or already use nicotine, to use Juul products. We certainly don’t want youth using the product,” the company states on its website. “It’s bad for public health, and it’s bad for our mission.”
Other companies have boosted the minimum age for purchasing online to 21 for all new customers, including those who live where age restrictions are lower.
Vaping exposes users to many different substances for which health experts have little information about possible effects, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a statement. Health experts say e-cigarettes are not safe for youth, young adults, pregnant women or adults who do not currently use tobacco products.
Despite the steps taken by the companies, school administrators say e-cigarettes are still being marketed to underage users.
“It’s marketed to people who know they have to hide it,” Southmont High School assistant principal Josh Hagenow said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report