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Reporting on the state of education in your community and across the country.

Kicking The Vaping Habit At Orange High School

Orange High School psychologist Edie Ungar-Shafron joins junior Mark Pristash and counselor Jessica Venditti at an About Control meeting. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]
Orange High School psychologist Edie Ungar-Shafron joins junior Mark Pristash and counselor Jessica Venditti at an About Control meeting.

It’s not as common to find high-school students sneaking a cigarette at school these days. Still, large numbers of teenagers are finding themselves addicted to nicotine.

They’re not smoking, they’re vaping: Inhaling a flavored vapor created when a cartridge of nicotine-laced liquid is heated in a rechargeable device.

According to a report released this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the use of e-cigarettes among high school students in the U.S. increased by nearly 78 percent from 2017 to 2018, totaling more than three million young people.

Many are using a device made by a company called Juul Labs. It looks like a computer thumb drive and is easy to hide. They call the device a “Juul,” and when they use one, they are “Juuling.”

Orange High School senior Ahmed Abouelsoud says the Juuls are everywhere. Young people get 18-year-olds to buy the devices and the nicotine cartridges for them at a slight markup. And now that he’s 18, access is even easier.

“I started [vaping] over a year ago,” Abouelsoud said. “Back then it wasn’t like I was going to get addicted to anything. Just a fun random thing to do with vaping.” 

Abouelsoud says he had never tried a cigarette before his Juul addiction. 

“When I actually started being able to breathe in the smoke and get a buzz. I loved it,” Abouelsoud said. “I’ve never smoked or done anything. It was just a different experience.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.5 million more young people used e-cigarettes in 2018 than 2017.

The nicotine is highly addictive, something Orange High junior Jared Kochis found out quickly.

“I kind of knew I had a problem once I got some point where like if I went a week and like a couple of days where I couldn't get pods… I was starting to feel the symptoms of withdrawal,” Kochis said. “I'd be really irritating and kind of angry and anxious all the time, and to the point where I was spending like hundreds of dollars.”

The epidemic came on fast, according to Orange High School psychologist Edie Ungar-Shafron.

“I had no idea what it was two years ago until we had kids who were caught in the bathrooms,” Ungar-Shafron said, voicing concerns about the effect of nicotine on young developing brains. “Their brains are not ready to handle this nicotine at such powerful levels until their brains are better, more fully developed.”

The CDC notes nicotine use in young people can affect learning, memory and attention in the adolescent brain.

Peer to Peer Support Helps Students Quit Vaping

Another student, Mark Pristash, approached Ungar-Shafron to admit he was addicted to vaping. He found himself constantly thinking about using his Juul. He wanted to quit.

“After multiple times of trying to quit by myself, I just don't know what to do. I didn't think it was possible,” Pristash said. “I just thought I was way too addicted and so I went in and I met with Mrs. Ungar-Shafron, the school psychologist. I just told her that I was addicted and I was trying to quit.”

They discussed various coping mechanisms and tools to help Pristash end his nicotine addiction.

“We went outside and walked on the track because he couldn’t sit,” Ungar-Shafron explained.

Their walking sessions worked and it triggered an idea to help others. They connected with Jessica Venditti, the Social Advocates for Youth Counselor assigned to Orange. They developed a voluntary, non-punitive, peer-to-peer program known as ABC, or About Control, to help the many other students facing what Pristash faced.

“So I feel like ABC is unique in that it’s helped to foster a feeling and environment of the students being able to come forward and say, ‘I have a problem and I want some help,’ as opposed to waiting until they’re in trouble,” Venditti said.

The school administration is on board. Assistant Principal Steve Hardaway said students still will face consequences if caught vaping at school, but the goal with ABC is to get them help, not just punishment.

“It’s a way that we can get the problem addressed without hammering the students with being out of school,” Hardaway said.

Orange High School senior Ahmed Abouelsoud and junior Jared Kochis have both struggled to control their vaping addiction. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]

Like overcoming any addiction, it isn’t easy, and it often isn’t a one-time deal. Ahmed Abouelsoud threw his Juul out the window of his high-rise apartment building when he got serious about quitting, but he bought a new one and started vaping again.

“Well, I’ve been trying to quit for I don’t even know how long, but I’ve never been able to set my mind to it till recently,” Abouelsoud said.

School psychologist Ungar-Shafron said she wishes there didn’t need to be a nicotine addiction support group in high school. However, reality dictates it and Abouelsoud and his classmates are building a new culture at the school.

“There are still kids who [vape]. It makes me really sad because we have posters. We have the New York Times article on the wall,” Ungar-Shafron said. “We advertise that we’re doing ABC group. Kids are still going to make those choices, but if they came to ABC club they’d learn how to take control.”

Mike McIntyre is the executive editor of Ideastream Public Media.