But the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes has created more awareness about the potential harm of the vapor-based cigarette alternative, and San Francisco school officials are working to extinguish students’ misconceptions as they become more prevalent on campuses.
Middle and high school students’ use of e-cigarettes doubled between 2011 and 2012 nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No local studies have been done, but an informal survey conducted by the San Francisco Unified School District in October found that students from the three high schools questioned said they think e-cigarettes are healthier and safer than cigarettes.
Students also reportedly said e-cigarettes help people quit smoking and don’t cause secondhand smoke.
Those statements are far from true, however, and the SFUSD is seeking to stamp out e-cigarette use, said Donna Blanchard, supervisor of student health programs for the district.
E-cigarettes reportedly produce a number of harmful effects, including airborne pollution containing nicotine, heavy metals and carcinogens, said Derek Smith, director of the Department of Public Health’s Tobacco Free Project.
They also give false hope to smokers about quitting, and because they have only existed in the U.S. for a few years, no long-term studies have been done, according to Smith.
California did ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in 2010, Smith said, but survey participants said they were rarely asked for identification when buying the product in San Francisco stores. More than 350 retailers are known to sell e-cigarettes in The City.
“Because they are flavorful, kids are enticed by them,” Blanchard said. “This is something that we’re seeing more and more. Teachers and administrators are coming to us saying, ‘What do we do?’”
Ellen Wong, principal at Downtown High School, said this school year marked the first time students were caught with e-cigarettes on her campus.
In one instance, a student reportedly set off a fire alarm by lighting an e-cigarette in a bathroom. In other case, a student puffed on an e-cigarette in a classroom while a teacher’s back was turned, according to Wong.
Per school district policy, when students are caught with e-cigarettes, they are sent to the school nurse, who explains the harmful effects of smoking. This process is in line with the SFUSD’s greater efforts to advocate restorative practices over suspensions.
“Rather than approach it like they’re being punished, we educate them,” said Lynda Boyer-Chu, a nurse at Washington High School.
Boyer-Chu, a 25-year veteran of the SFUSD, said she’s seen fewer than a handful of students with e-cigarettes, but those who are caught echo the misconception that e-cigarettes are harmless.
Education and research surrounding e-cigarettes have reached the statewide level as well. Last month, the SFUSD received a $1.4 million Tobacco Use Prevention Education grant from the California Department of Education that enables the district to continue its outreach about the risks of smoking.
For the first time, the grant, which is continually awarded to the district over three- or four-year periods, will include a presentation on e-cigarettes, according to Blanchard.
And tonight, a ban on e-cigarettes in schools is expected to be introduced at the Board of Education meeting.
Meanwhile, an ordinance amending The City’s health code to prohibit the use of e-cigarettes where smoking is not allowed goes into effect Saturday.
The SFUSD conducted an informal survey of students at three high schools in October:
Q: Do you think that too many middle and high school students use tobacco (cigarettes, chew tobacco, etc.)?
YES – 150
NO – 47
NOT SURE – 91
Q: What do you know about e-cigarettes?
“They are alternatives”
“Help to quit”
“Don’t cause secondhand smoke”
“EVERYONE is doing it”
“In the bathroom”
Note: The survey also revealed that 21 percent of students feel the LGBT community is the most underserved for tobacco prevention intervention.
Source: San Francisco Unified School District