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‘JUUL’ of the Housatonic: Vaping seen as ‘epidemic’ in Southern Berkshire schools

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last week that e-cigarette use has increased almost 80 percent among high schoolers and 50 percent among middle schoolers since last year.

Sheffield — In response to a growing consensus on the dangers of so-called e-cigarettes, especially among young people in the town’s schools, the Sheffield Board of Health last week officially raised the age at which young people can purchase “tobacco products” to 21.

Click here to see the previous tobacco product regulations enacted almost four years ago and how the board revised them last week. 

Southern Berkshire Regional School District school resource officer Tricia Zucco told the Sheffield Board of Health at a Nov. 19 meeting that vaping is ‘one the largest problems at Mount Everett.’

The action came on the heels of the words of Tricia Zucco, the school resource officer of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District who spoke at the board’s Nov. 19 meeting at the request of school committee member Dennis Sears of Sheffield. Zucco, who is also a Sheffield police officer, has been at the school since Feb. 1. During that time, Zucco said she has “learned that vaping is an epidemic.” 

“It’s one the largest problems at Mount Everett,” Zucco said, referring to the regional school in Sheffield for grades 7 to 12. And unlike certain niche drugs, vaping “covers the spectrum of artists, scholars, athletes … it’s happening before and after sports, on school buses, athletic buses, at home.” Some students are even managing to sneak a vape in class, blowing the vapor into their sleeves, she said. 

See video below of the Sheffield Board of Health discussing its new regulations on tobacco products with Southern Berkshire SRO Tricia Zucco and Rene Wood, a member of the Sheffield Board of Selectmen: 

 

According to the Center on Addiction, vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling the aerosol or vapor produced by an e-cigarette or similar device. E-cigarettes do not produce tobacco smoke, but rather an aerosol resembling water vapor consisting of fine particles. The particles themselves contain varying amounts of toxic chemicals linked to cancer as well as respiratory and heart diseases.

“I’m hearing reports from students, parents and teachers,” Zucco added. “The problem is the difference between smoking cigarettes and the vaping: It’s very hard to detect.” 

With traditional cigarettes, there are plumes of smoke coming from the burnt paper and tobacco. It is relatively easy for school officials to catch students smoking in bathrooms, for example. 

And there were always the tell-tale signs of smoking: offensive odors on body and hair; the brown stains on teeth and fingers; dropped ashes; holes burned in clothing. Indeed, those unpleasant effects have turned many kids off to smoking and toward vaping. Smoking is no longer regarded as cool. 

“Well, that’s exactly what’s enticing the kids,” Zucco said.

Various types of e-cigarettes. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

So not only does vaping come without the baggage associated with traditional smoking, but the vapors are often flavored to make them more attractive to young people: grape, whipped cream, Doritos, crème brûlée. Zucco says by far the most popular is mango. 

And the most popular vaporizing device among youth is the JUUL, leading to the invention of the slang verb “Juuling” to describe the activity. The company that manufactures the device markets it as a “smoking alternative” that “was created to be a satisfying alternative to cigarettes.”

JUUL insists its mission is “to improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers.” And indeed e-cigarettes have been successfully used as smoking cessation aids, though they have also enticed nonsmokers to take up vaping, so it’s not clear whether, on balance, there are any real benefits to the products.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last week that e-cigarette use has increased almost 80 percent among high schoolers and 50 percent among middle schoolers since last year.

In announcing the agency’s findings, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, “These data shock my conscience.” Gottlieb and his team have recommended new restrictions on flavored e-cigarettes, among other measures. Click here to read the full FDA statement from Gottlieb, a physician who has treated cancer patients and who is himself a cancer survivor. On Wednesday, Dec. 5, the FDA will hold a public hearing on potential therapies to address teenage nicotine addiction. 

More attention was focused on vaping recently when the New York Times published a profile titled “The Price of Cool: A Teenager, a Juul and Nicotine Addiction.” The piece focused a Reading, Mass., teenager whose life was nearly destroyed by the JUUL device, which he called his “11th finger.” 

Zucco said the JUULs have a streamlined look similar to an enlarged USB flash drive. Indeed, many of the vaping devices can be recharged in a USB port just like a thumb drive.

Monument Mountain Regional High School Assistant Principal Peter Falkowski at a Berkshire Hills School Committee meeting earlier this fall. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“I think kids prefer it,” Peter Falkowski, assistant principal at Monument Mountain Regional High School, said in an Edge interview. “This happens quickly, easily. And it’s much cleaner and easier to hide. It looks sleek.”

Even though vaping is much harder to detect than old-fashioned smoking, Zucco estimated that, in the last few months, her school has caught between 15 and 20 students using the devices. In addition, the flavor packets can be found fallen out of lockers and on the floor, in bathrooms and in the parking lot. 

Zucco, who is also a registered nurse, said she and school officials contacted Joyce Brewer, a program director at the Berkshire Area Health Education Center. To read an email and information on vaping that Brewer sent to the board of health, click here. 

At Zucco’s invitation, Brewer visited the school Nov. 13 and made a presentation in the Mount Everett library to parents, many of whom, according to Zucco, were under the mistaken impression that vaping was less harmful than cigarettes.

Indeed, she said, some parents were asking for the vaping devices, which retail for about $50, to be returned after school officials had confiscated them from their children.

In addition to a number of teachers, administrators and school committee members, about 10 parents attended Brewer’s hour-long presentation. More training is planned for students in grades five through 12 this week. It will be guided by Mike Monti of the Brien Center in Pittsfield. Both programs cost the district nothing. 

Zucco said even fifth-graders have been found using the JUULs. Charles Miller, principal of Undermountain Elementary School, reported that one was even found among the belongings of a first-grader. 

Electronic cigarettes can come in very different forms, such as this hand grenade-shaped variant.Image courtesy www.ecigclick.co.uk

“It’s very dangerous and our kids aren’t taking it seriously because it’s practically candy, you know,” Zucco said. “It’s this fun new thing and … right now there’s so little research and it’s so new — only a few years old.”

At Berkshire Hills, first-year Monument Principal Doug Wine told the Edge he and his team are in the process of looking at new ways of addressing vaping in the curriculum and they’re eyeing a proposal to start educating ninth-graders on the dangers of the devices. In addition, there will be more schoolwide options in the future.

Falkowski said he does not think vaping devices are “in widespread use” in his school but they’re “concentrated to specific areas of the building.” 

“I would bet there’s a population that needs to use it during the day,” Falkowski said.

Falkowski, who came to Monument in August from Taconic High School in Pittsfield, added that Monument also has a smoking cessation program with the Railroad Street Youth Project, and the subject of vaping is “getting a lot of attention” in health classes. 

“We had made great progress in reducing smoking across the country and both young people and adults are underestimating the addictive and health impacts of vaping,” Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon told The Edge. “The devices are hard to detect and too prevalent. We need to support a cultural shift.”

Sheffield Selectman Rene Wood implored the town’s board of health to raise the legal age for the purchase of tobacco-related products to 21. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Back in Sheffield, Sears’ wife, Selectman Rene Wood, said several school committee members wanted to attend the board of health meeting but were unable to because a special meeting of the committee was scheduled for the same night. She urged the health board to raise the age from 18 to 21 for the purchase of tobacco products. 

“If you don’t take this action, what are you as adults saying about this?” Wood asked rhetorically. “We need to really make this a focus of discussion. Kids are getting hooked on nicotine, even at fifth grade. This is frightening.” Wood is also a former member of the board of health.

On Monday, Dec. 31, Massachusetts will become the sixth state to raise the age for tobacco product purchases, including e-cigarettes, to 21. So the Sheffield action, which takes effect at roughly the same time, is largely symbolic. 

Gov. Charlie Baker signed the law in July. JUUL Labs spokesman Matt David supported Baker’s move:

“We applaud [Baker] for signing a bill requiring people to be at least 21 in order to purchase cigarettes, tobacco or vaping products. At JUUL Labs, we support 21+ legislation at the local, state and federal levels. We want to keep JUUL out of the hands of young people, and we believe raising the minimum purchase age is a step in the right direction. We are committed to combating underage use, and we hope other states will follow Massachusetts.”

Members of the Sheffield Board of Health. From left, David Smith, Sarah Gulotta, David Lewis and Eileen Clarke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Health board Chair Sarah Gulotta, whose father, Anthony J. Gulotta, owns the gas station, auto repair shop and convenience store in the center of town, read a letter from him supporting the change. Also supporting the proposal was Susan Silk of Silk’s Variety on Main Street. Both establishments support the local measure. Click here to read the letters. 

Also weighing in was Bonnie Silvers, who chairs the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee and is a veteran educator. A Sheffield resident, Silvers emphasized that she was speaking for herself and not on behalf of the school committee. Click here to read the letter she sent to the board of health.

Silvers, who supports the rise in purchasing age, said after looking into the matter and viewing a presentation from the group Get Outraged, “my concerns related to vaping have been raised to a whole new level.”

The Sheffield regulations will bring the town’s tobacco-related policy in line with the majority of other towns in Berkshire County. Both Egremont and Great Barrington, for example, have enacted similar measures. Sheffield will become the 179th of the state’s 351 municipalities to have enacted such a restriction.

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