A quarter of Alachua County’s middle and high school students use vape products. Here’s what’s being done to combat usage.
As a respiratory therapist, Alisha Berry knows firsthand the medical dangers e-cigarette and vape products have for kids.
“They start coughing, and their lungs will literally collapse,” she said.
From hospitalizations to addiction, Berry said the next generation of children need to be careful not to fall into a nicotine habit.
“Vaping is just as bad, or worse than smoking a cigarette,” she said. “There’s so many health concerns from a respiratory therapist’s standpoint, from these kids being so young, starting so early.”
A quarter of all middle and high school students in Alachua County have used a vapor product at least once as of 2022, according to the Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, and the county has stayed above the state average for the past two recorded years.
Between legislative changes and student organizations, the county is trying to curb the usage of e-cigarettes and similar vaping devices despite the increasing number of tobacco retailers.
The 2023-2024 code of conduct for Alachua County public schools, which went into effect this school year, was the first to include consequences for possessing or selling vaping products.
Students who are caught vaping within 1,000 feet of school property can now be legally issued to complete an anti-vaping program, complete 50 hours of community service or pay $25 as per the 2019 e-cigarette regulations.
Jackie Johnson, Alachua County public schools spokesperson, said the penalties are possible due to those regulations.
“One of the things that made that possible was the state law that puts a little bit more teeth into the penalties for vaping,” she said.
Students are punished on a three-offense system, first serving in-school detention and taking a class, then in-school suspension with another class and an in-school suspension with a citation.
Teachers and school staff recently were trained on how to present a new vaping prevention program, Johnson added.
Despite its large percentage of users, Alachua County has regularly passed legislation aimed at curbing underage vaping.
Additionally, the 2019 ordinance requires businesses selling tobacco to be at least 1,000 feet away from schools. Retailers are prevalent across the county despite the restrictions.
Around 50 businesses within Alachua County have licenses to sell tobacco products, including both smoke shops and grocery stores like Family Dollar, Dollar General and Publix.
A higher density of tobacco businesses in an area is associated with more tobacco use, more people starting smoking and a higher prevalence of smoking, according to a Nicotine and Tobacco Research study.
Some parents are worried about local smoke shops influencing their children.
Smoker Express, which opened in July, is less than a 10-minute walk from Oak View Middle School’s campus.
Yash Patel, an employee at Smoker Express since its opening, said the store is aware of children passing it on their walks home and verifies the age of customers.
“We haven’t had any students, thankfully, coming in,” he said. “We don’t let kids in with their parents either.”
The store checks the ID of everyone who enters the store and scans them during purchases to make sure they aren’t fake, he added.
Students and activist organizations are also working to fight youth vaping.
Tyrese Gaines works as the Community Engagement Specialist for a youth advocacy program under Tobacco Free Alachua called Students Working Against Tobacco.
The program, which currently has three clubs at Santa Fe High School, Howard Bishop Middle School and PACE Center for Girls, aims to change student perceptions toward drugs, both for students who haven’t vaped and those who currently are addicted, Gaines said.
“I want to talk to a vaper and see what’s different between them and a non-vaper, I want everybody to mesh together and make it a big old melting pot like America is supposed to be,” he said.
Drug Abuse Resistance Education, one of the most widely used drug education programs, received backlash after a 2004 study found it did little to prevent youth drug use; its updated curriculum was effective at deterring 30-day vaping use, according to a 2023 study.
The 25-year-old said he hopes to keep SWAT effective by letting students lead and by authentically connecting with children through his own background.
“It’s very important to have the right people running programs like these,” he said. “I think a huge thing that helps me is having used tobacco, having been through experiences that some of these kids they’re going through.”
The group mainly provides informational presentations at events, but Gaines hopes the local SWAT chapter will be able to eventually host community events on its own.