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Survey finds e-cigarettes are problem in Ridgefield

July 4, 2018

RIDGEFIELD — Even before they surveyed hundreds of residents on the issue, high-schoolers Mitchell van der Noll and Aiden Williams knew e-cigarettes was a growing problem among teenagers in town.

The high school seniors, who distributed the survey as interns with Town Hall this spring, said the number of students using the devices has “exploded” over the last year or two.

Students can be found smoking e-cigarettes in the high school bathrooms, in the parking lots, at parties outside of school and most recently, at the middle schools, they said. Most use the newest device, a Juul vape pen.

“It kind of came out of nowhere,” Williams said. “You can see anyone from any social group using them at kind of any time. If you go into the bathroom at the high school there’s probably a greater than 50 percent chance you would find someone (smoking).”

The survey, distributed on a community Facebook page, revealed that Ridgefielders are taking notice. More than 39 percent of the 240 people surveyed said e-cigarettes surpass alcohol, heroin, marijuana and cocaine as the “most relevant substance abuse problem in our community today.”

About 97 percent said they have heard of the “widespread usage amongst teenagers” and almost 91 percent that they knew about high schoolers vaping in bathrooms during school.

But the question for the interns then became — what should be done about it?

Van der Noll and Williams concluded that substance-abuse education, rather than harsher punishments, is the better of the most popular proposed solutions. They recently presented the survey results and their thoughts to Ridgefield’s Community Coalition Against Substance Abuse.

So far, increased surveillance of the bathrooms or the threat of disciplinary action has not stopped students from using e-cigarettes, except they are now perhaps more discrete, the students said. Suspension or expulsion instead of detention could stop some students, van der Noll added, but might embolden others.

“Adding harsher punishment is almost like a challenge,” van der Noll said. “People feel like they’re breaking the rules and it makes them feel good that they’re getting away with it.”

But education also has its challenges, the interns said, namely that vaping is so new that there isn’t much research about its potential negative health effects.

This has made it difficult to convince students, who generally see it as a cleaner alternative to cigarettes, that there is a reason to stop.

“It’s kind of hard to tell someone that it’s bad when they ask, ‘How bad?’ and you say, ‘We don’t really know yet,’” Williams said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do say, like all nicotine products, that e-cigarettes are not safe for youth. But, they also report that they are safer than regular cigarettes, could potentially help adults quit smoking cigarettes and that additional research is needed to understand the long-term health effects.

Both students said they think this doesn’t necessarily mean that anti-vaping education shouldn’t continue, but that its approach might need to change.

“The research would obviously help if we had solid evidence…but I feel like ditching the campaign as a whole might be a mistake,” van der Noll said.

About 62 percent of people surveyed said the current Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program at the elementary level is not effective, which van der Noll said might be because it isn’t the most appropriate age for it. Half of the respondents felt the program should be extended to the high school.

Williams said another idea might be to change the focus from the possible health effects to the cost of e-cigarettes. A pack of four Juul pods — which hold the nicotine-infused liquid and are put into the device to smoke — cost about $20 a pack.

“I know several people who used for a while and eventually they didn’t have any money for it and they had to stop,” he said.

aquinn@newstimes.com

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