At Miami Beach Senior High, electronic cigarettes have become almost as ubiquitous as Instagram and Snapchat.
Teens skip class to inhale liquid nicotine in the bathroom, vape at lunch, and even sneak puffs in class while the teacher’s back is turned, according to students and parents.
“It’s very common,” said one sophomore e-cigarette user, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Every class I like to rip it a couple times.”
“They’ll be sneaky,” said another sophomore, who said his peers smoke e-cigarettes in the back of class, in bathrooms, and “anywhere” else you could think of at school. E-cigarettes don’t emit a strong odor, so it can be hard for teachers to know when students are using the devices.
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E-cigarettes aren’t a problem only at Beach High. With their sleek design and appealing flavors — one popular brand, Juul, resembles a flash drive and offers mango and cucumber flavored nicotine cartridges — e-cigarettes have become a fad for teenagers across the country, alarming public health officials. The use of e-cigarettes among high school students has grown by 900 percent in recent years, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Surgeon General.
Experts say the trend is threatening to erode decades of hard-fought progress in curbing smoking among youths. In addition to the risks associated with using e-cigarettes, which typically contain nicotine and other harmful substances, there’s strong evidence that e-cigarette use increases the risk that a teen will start smoking conventional cigarettes.
Although federal law prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under 18, Miami Beach teens say the devices and nicotine cartridges are easy to get. Students order them online, get an unscrupulous adult to buy them, or find a smoke shop that doesn’t ask for ID. They also use delivery apps that send someone else to buy the product, enabling the teens to avoid age restrictions, according to city officials.
“They’re being used in class, they’re being used in lunch ... it’s very prevalent,” said Miami-Dade County School Board member Martin Karp, whose district includes Miami Beach, describing what he hears from students.
All of this has alarmed Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor with high school and college-aged children. “It’s clear these are being marketed with children in mind and that’s utterly unacceptable and anyone involved in the chain of commerce needs to be held accountable,” Gelber said. “Kids are ordering them through typical delivery services and other means where there’s really no accountability.”
Gelber wants Miami Beach to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and has proposed new rules designed to keep the devices away from teens. The measures, which the City Commission will consider at a meeting on Wednesday, include requiring businesses to obtain proof that a customer is over 18 before mailing or delivering e-cigarettes. Businesses would be required to get a copy of a customer’s driver’s license and verify the customer’s information in a “commercially available database.”
Those rules would apply to online retailers, even if they’re based in another city or state, said Aleksandr Boksner, Miami Beach’s chief deputy city attorney. If a business sends an e-cigarette or nicotine cartridge without verifying the customer’s age, Miami Beach would have the jurisdiction to prosecute the business, Boksner said.
The city found that delivery of e-cigarettes was “the easiest mechanism” through which teens could obtain the devices, Boksner said, “so that’s why we decided we’re going to attack it on that front.”
The proposal would also beef up the penalties for businesses who violate the law. Selling e-cigarettes to a minor is currently a second-degree misdemeanor that is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail. Under the proposed changes, businesses that break the law would also have their business license suspended for up to six months and could lose it altogether for a second violation.
And for teens, who can already be fined or sentenced to community service if they’re caught with e-cigarettes, the new rules would increase the fine to $100 for the first violation and boost the required number of community service hours.
Although it’s already illegal for minors to possess e-cigarettes in Miami Beach, the police department said it had no record of any citations issued last year for violating the city’s e-cigarette ordinance. It appears that enforcement more often takes the form of school discipline, rather than a police citation.
At Miami-Dade schools, students caught with tobacco or smoking devices, including vapes and e-cigarettes, are subject to a range of discipline, including a suspension of up to five days, participating in a counseling session or a referral to a diversion center. The district is currently reviewing the existing policies relating to vaping and will be taking recommendations on changes to the Code of Student Conduct to the school board for consideration, spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego wrote in an email.
Discipline data specific to e-cigarette and vape usage in schools was not readily available, but tobacco-related incidents made up the largest portion of discipline incidents in schools during the 2016-17 school year — 21 percent of the 4,036 incidents reported by the Miami-Dade school district. At Beach High, 38 out of 71 reported offenses were tobacco-related.
Elisheva Rogoff, president of Beach High’s Parent Teacher Student Association, supports the proposed restrictions and said she’s in favor of any measures that would make it harder for teens to get e-cigarettes.
“It won’t be the cure-all, but I think it will bring awareness to the issue and hopefully get parents to be a little more vigilant in their monitoring of their children,” she said.
Rogoff said she’d also like to see schools teach students about the dangers of e-cigarettes early on so that by the time they’re exposed to the devices in middle school or high school, they understand the risks. “If you catch them before they start, I think that will be more effective,” she said.
The school district in August launched its E(liminate)-cigs Awareness Campaign, which includes informing students and families about the dangers of tobacco use and training teachers and school administrators on how to spot e-cigarettes and vaping in schools.
The district will also pilot e-cigarette detection devices in nine high schools, which haven’t been identified yet, beginning in January.
School Board member Karp has been outspoken about the issue of vaping among students over the past six months. Karp said he didn’t know much about Miami Beach’s initiative, but said he supports keeping these devices out of reach for teens.
“Any opportunity to keep it out of the hands of kids who shouldn’t have it is something I support,” he said. “I don’t support harming businesses or anything, but if it’s not supposed to be sold to minors, and it is, then we’re responsible.”
“I just don’t want to see us have a generation of addicts,” Karp added.
Government agencies and nonprofits could also use some of the tactics that have proved effective at fighting the use of conventional cigarettes to curb the use of e-cigarettes, said Judy Schaechter, chair of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. That includes raising taxes on the devices, since teens typically don’t have a lot of disposable income.
(Using e-cigarettes can be cheaper than smoking conventional cigarettes. At one South Beach smoke shop on Washington Avenue, nicotine cartridges with the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes were selling for $5 each, while a pack of cigarettes cost $8.)
Schaechter said that while e-cigarettes are marketed as a safer alternative to smoking tobacco, there are still a lot of risks associated with inhaling liquid nicotine. Nicotine exposure can harm the developing adolescent brain, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General, and can affect impulse control and cause attention, cognition and mood problems. Each e-cigarette has a different chemical structure, Schaechter said, and some of the chemicals include pulmonary irritants and carcinogens.
“It’s not a healthy product for children,” she said. “We need to find a way to keep it out of kids’ hands and not increase nicotine use as well as tobacco use.”
But it’s unclear whether Miami Beach’s approach will be effective. Beach High students said they thought teens would find a way to circumvent the new regulations, like using fake IDs to order the products online. (A fake ID on its own wouldn’t be enough to get around the restrictions if a company also verifies the buyer’s information using a database, however.)
One Beach High student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she thought efforts to make teens more aware of the risks associated with e-cigarettes would be more effective than placing more restrictions on their sale.
“You can try to stop it but kids are always going to find a way,” she said.