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E-cigarette use is not just a problem in York County school districts — it’s an addiction.

So says Northern High School Principal Steve Lehman, who shared the story of a student whose regular dose of nicotine was so high he was no longer saving money for college, instead finding odd jobs to finance his next hit.

He was glad he got caught at school, Lehman said of the student, who has now discussed treatment options with a family doctor to get him off the drug. He started at 6 percent nicotine and increased to 50 percent over time.

Although sometimes touted as a healthier alternative to smoking for adults — and a pathway to quitting — teens are using e-cigarettes differently.

They can get high levels of nicotine from the devices, commonly known as vapes. The pod of vaping liquid in popular brand Juul contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

High schools across the nation see the devices as a problem, and the Food and Drug Administration agrees. Last month, the FDA reported a sharp rise in underage use, calling it an "epidemic of addiction."

More: Calling teen vaping ‘epidemic,’ officials weigh flavor ban

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Although Northern York County School District saw an uptick in the number of students vaping within the past two to three years, Lehman said last year it hit an all-time high — with at least 50 kids caught with a device.

Staff are still catching kids on a weekly basis, though he said numbers are lower than the same time last year.

“We’re taking it very seriously," he said.

York Suburban High School Principal Brian Ellis said it's definitely a concern at his district, reporting that one student is caught at the school every couple of weeks, but he does not believe school officials are catching all of them.

The challenge is that the small amount of vapor dissipates so quickly it can be gone in a few seconds, he said.

Both districts assign in-school suspensions to students who are caught.

Northern York has an added 21-day suspension for students involved in athletics and extracurriculars, which Superintendent Eric Eshbach says is not stopping kids from getting busted over and over again.

It tells him their habit has become more important than their sport or activity — an indication that it's part of their lifestyle and they can't do without, he said.

Red Lion Area Senior High School Assistant Principal William Rickard said few students in his district are caught but not because they aren't vaping.

"I think it’s just they’re smart enough not to do it at our school," he said.

Rickard said it's scary to think that kids are putting something artificial in their lungs, adding, "It’s supposedly 95 percent better for them than cigarette smoke, but it’s still 5 percent bad, to me — and I don’t think kids realize that."

The York Dispatch reached out to high school principals from York County's remaining 13 public school districts, but they did not immediately return calls.

Lehman, however, said the issue is constantly under discussion by principals in the county.

"You talk to anybody in any school, and they’ll tell you it’s an epidemic proportion," said Northern York's school board president, Ken Sechrist.

How are they getting them? Though it's illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to purchase vaping products in Pennsylvania, students often get them online or through older students.

The number of high school students who reported recently vaping jumped from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015 –— the same year Juul was released. But it dropped again to 11 percent in 2016 and 2017.

Those numbers, drawn from a CDC questionnaire filled out annually by about 20,000 students in grades six through 12, declined in middle school students, too. 

More: Some skeptical of claim that vaping by teens isn’t going up

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In April, federal health authorities announced a nationwide crackdown on underage sales, and in September, the FDA sent out 1,300 warning letters and fines.

More: Schools fret as teens take to vaping, even in classrooms

The five largest manufacturers, accounting for 97 percent of U.S. sales of the products, have 60 days from the FDA's Sept. 12 announcement to come up with plans to curb underage use.

Critics have said the flavors and the sleek packaging are targeting young people.

Mike Curry, owner of LifeSmoke Vapors, which has locations in Hanover and Springettsbury Township, does not believe this is the case — but says just like they were with tobacco, kids are curious and want to try new things, no matter what the packaging.

He does not sell to anyone under 18 and said he is in complete support of keeping vaping products out of the hands of minors, though he believes his industry is being unfairly targeted.

Vaping is an issue, but not anywhere near the issue teens have with tobacco, and that should be the focus, he said.  

More: Locals protest vape tax amid store closures

Education: Many districts throughout the nation are focusing on education and outreach, including training for school staff on what to look for and information for students and parents who just do not know the risks.

"I think there’s a false sense of security out there that this is much safer than smoking a cigarette or smokeless tobacco," Northern's Eshbach said.

Some vapes contain the flavoring diacetyl — which has been linked to a serious lung disease — as well as heavy metals and other cancer-causing chemicals, though less than those produced by cigarettes, according to the CDC.

But the most prominent concern is the effect of nicotine on an adolescent brain, which the CDC states continues developing into the early to mid-20s, said Dr. Matthew Howie, medical director of the York City Bureau of Health.

And the earlier kids become addicted, the harder it is to stop and the more likely for them to turn to tobacco products, Howie said.

Northern York is focusing on the mental health side of the issue as well. Any student who is caught is referred to an optional student assistance program with a drug and alcohol counselor.

Roadblocks: Part of the problem is enforcement — if students are caught with tobacco on school property, the district can notify the local magistrate and students can be fined up to $50, according to Pennsylvania's Title 18 statute. 

According to the state Crimes Code, minors  also can be fined up to $200 for purchasing tobacco or falsely representing themselves as 18.

With tobacco penalties in place, use dropped dramatically, Eshbach said, so he's hoping for something similar with vaping.

House Bill 2226, which was referred to the Senate judiciary committee in June, would give the same penalties for selling nicotine products to minors as are given for selling them tobacco products — but it's likely it will have to be re-introduced in 2019.

In the meantime, Northern York's school board has brought vaping issues to the forefront of the discussion in the last few months, Sechrist said.

"I think we’re at the beginning of this," he said. "So we’ll see where we are six months from now."

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