This past January, global tobacco conglomerate Altria saw a major drop in its stock value on the New York Stock Exchange, depreciating at a value of almost 40% versus its record-breaking highs in 2017. What caused this sudden dip in one of the biggest-rebounding industries of the 21st century? It would be fair to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some major complications for both the traditional and electronic cigarette corporations located across the United States.
As a respiratory-based infectious disease, COVID-19 poses an unparalleled threat to the health and safety of individuals across the age spectrum with significant histories of vaping or smoking. In fact, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Chinese patients with a history of smoking were twice as likely to suffer from severe infections associated with diseases such as COVID-19 in comparison with those without any smoking history.
Having always opposed the youth vaping/smoking culture, counselors and community advocates across the nation are currently working to answer a significant question: What actions can we be taking to protect our communities from the combined threat of COVID-19 and recent vaping trends?
The truth is, now is the prime time for considering how we can influence our communities to create better post-quarantine schools for our students.
The loss and revitalization of the smoking industry
Only five years ago, health specialists with the Truth Initiative anti-smoking campaign speculated that the tobacco industry and most of the nation’s smoking addictions would expire with the Generation Z demographic. But vaping, the process of inhaling prepackaged aerosols (also known as vapor), has led to the resurgence of nicotine products within school systems.
Through a combination of peer pressure and social media campaigns, students from all backgrounds have found themselves under the influence of Altria’s newest partner, Juul Labs, maker of the Juul electronic cigarette. Largely as the result of the popularization of this flavored electronic smoking device, the number of high school students who use nicotine products has increased from 3.6 million to 5.4 million in the span of only one year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
How significant it would be to know that schools were free of the harmful aftereffects of adolescent smoking, leaving school counselors and clinicians available to attend to the important mental health developments that are so essential in our school systems right now. Instead, we find ourselves dealing with another truly concerning issue: According to the Truth Initiative, 1 in every 4 high school students now uses e-cigarettes.
These concerning statistics represent a call for preventative action in middle schools across the nation. A number of schools and organizations have taken such counteractions to trends in vaping by launching interventions such as confiscation, disciplinary action, and even educational programming. But the culture of vaping continues to persist as a significant concern for parents and educators.
The most terrifying thing about the Juul product so far is that it appears to come off as being innocuous to many people. Most students and parents recognize it as the small USB-shaped device that produces fruit-flavored smoke. Very few seem to grasp the long-term consequences of vaping habits. That being said, those consequences might already be here.
The individuals at risk
Based on data collected by the CDC in early March, evidence suggests that COVID-19 poses a serious threat to all individuals ages 65 and older. Fortunately for students under the age of 18, the percentage of those infected and harmed has been relatively low by comparison.
While most parents find some comfort in hearing that the student demographic is the least impacted by the pandemic, the statistics can change drastically if students are part of the vaping culture that is rampant among youth. According to data provided by the CDC for China’s mainland population facing COVID-19, individuals with respiratory issues predominantly associated with even a small history of smoking or vaping have a 6.3% case fatality rate, in contrast to 2.3% overall. Recognizing how exposure to vaping increases a person’s health concerns, imagine the increased risks that our students could face should their still-developing physiques come in contact with both nicotine products and a respiratory infection.
“What they say is about 80% of people feel the flu, but they will be OK. Where we are getting into trouble is that it can lead to severe pulmonary distress,” says Anna Song, an associate professor of health psychology and leader of the Health Behaviors Research Lab at the University of California Merced. “Smoking is a risk factor for having this disease progress, be incredibly severe, and lead to mortality.”
As we know, COVID-19 has posed widespread challenges to the health and lifestyles of the global population. Societal and educational norms have begun to deteriorate, and everyday tasks and responsibilities now come with an unprecedented health risk to individuals and their families. Of great concern to us is that the unattended trends and cultures of our school systems could be having a negative impact on our students right now. To allow these trends to persist beyond this pandemic is to continue putting our students at risk unnecessarily.
A unique opportunity for change
What makes now such an ideal time to invest in removing the harmful vape cultures that continue to linger in our school systems? Students are largely being required to undertake remote learning during this time, and that may continue for many students even as a new school year begins. The changes and circumstances that come with students’ remote learning actually promote our greatest opportunity for the development of an anti-smoking culture.
Society is recognizing that our plans, policies and preparation were inadequate to succeed in the face of an unanticipated global pandemic. Thus, things are beginning to change. Legislation is developing to create preventative actions around practices deemed unhealthy by medical specialists, and educational policy is constantly being reformed to reflect the needs and issues present in our impromptu teaching conditions. If there was ever a time to acknowledge the statistics that point to the harm that nicotine products pose to our adolescents and to advocate for the safety of our children, it is now.
Large systemic changes are challenging and often are out of our hands, but educators and parents currently have the opportunity to make a notable difference in students’ environments. During this time of partial quarantine, most families are now all in one location — the home. Our students currently find themselves in a setting where they are under the watchful eyes of their families and where smoking purchases and practices are essentially impossible.
In addition to that, they are also in a potential learning atmosphere. Through the joint efforts of educators and parents, our youth can be exposed to real educational and intimate conversations regarding the dangerous practices of smoking. These conversations can mean the world to students who currently feel that their futures and health might be dictated by vaping culture.
COVID-19 has had a harsh and unpredictable influence on our way of life, but it also presents us with a rare opportunity to support our students through one of the greatest health issues of their generation. So, making use of the present, it is time that we as a supportive community of counselors consider what we should be doing to help facilitate and emphasize this process of growth for students’ mental and physical health.
Our responsibility to intervene
As of early April, individuals within Rowan University’s Department of Psychology have been conducting their own research to confront the vaping culture that remains prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their research takes an interesting approach to behavioral analysis with younger age groups, including the development of interesting activities such as mobile- and video game-based interventions that promote smoking abstinence.
Fortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the collective efforts of universities to combat vaping trends in student populations. Even educational institutions outside of higher education are recognizing the statistically supported danger that vaping is putting our students in when facing the current health pandemic. As a community, it is our collaborative responsibility to provide education and to take the necessary precautions to protect our students’ health. We are just beginning to understand the proper steps to take when working from a remote distance.
Educating the community: Providing knowledge of the increased risks and hazards of smoking behaviors is the first step to reducing nicotine consumption within our school systems. Given the myriad resources available on the consequences of vaping from the CDC, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and even university websites such as Johns Hopkins Medicine, it is the obligation of school counselors and other school personnel to appropriately share this information with our local communities. It is important to remember that this information needs to be given not only to the students we support, but also to our educational partners and to the families who are acting as our immediate support systems in homes at this time.
Promoting real conversations: With the knowledge and statistics being supplied to our students’ homes, it is more important now than ever that school systems promote real conversations with students regarding the present vaping cultures. Whether it is school counselor-to-student or parent-to-student conversations, we need to understand what the student perspectives are when they see products such as Juul in the media while also witnessing terrifying statistics regarding the spread of a global virus.
With those who are currently smoking, it is vital that we understand their concerns and interests so that we can provide them the appropriate support they need. These conversations are the optimal opportunity to promote and communicate resiliency, empathy and community support to our students. And with those who have never touched a vaping device, communicating this information and the associated risks is the best possible preventative action at this time.
Advocating for policies: To reiterate, now is a turbulent time when leaders are reflecting on educational preparations and policy and how they might be applied for future incidents. In addition to redesigning our school’s remote learning policies, we need to be working as a professional community to advocate for anti-vaping policies within our schools. It is essential that school counselors reflect on school policies regarding smoking tolerance, as well as preventative actions to take, so that they can create real opportunities to support student health.
Fortunately, states and health institutions are rallying to create a number of anti-vaping models that can be implemented or referenced by school counselors looking to better their schools. One such model is the Make Smoking History campaign, conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, to reduce the percentage of vaping disciplinary actions taken in middle school settings. This is the time to ask for and support the voices of the education community to find out what should be done for the development of our educational systems — not just on a school-by-school basis, but from a legislative perspective.
Forming support groups: Finally, acknowledging that this is a difficult time for individuals who have a dependency on smoking tools to which they no longer have easy access, we need to prepare and create remote counseling groups to support them through potential issues such as withdrawal or rehabilitation. A number of counselors may struggle with the concept of remote group counseling, but these students still need emotional and mental health support to cope with their new distancing from vaping. Counselors should utilize the medical resources and personnel within their school districts to support students in their transition to healthier living. Ultimately, it is groups such as these that we should be planning to implement more frequently in our later return to school.
The truth is that in the midst of a global health crisis, most individuals view the issue of vaping in school systems as relatively small. But the fact is that vaping is a real health issue for our youth, and in combination with the threat of COVID-19, it puts our newest generation of students at exceptional risk for loss. In a moment in history when many counselors are at home and wondering what they should be doing to support their students, imagine what significant change could occur if we all directed a portion of our efforts to acknowledging and countering the present vaping culture.
Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “Pushing through the vape cloud”
Zachary Short is a master’s counseling in educational settings student at Rowan University. He currently works as a clinical research intern in a high school setting, where his research in student behavioral outcomes is being supported through the Mental Health Grant Demonstration Program. Contact him through LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/shortzachary/.
Nicole Baliszewski is a master’s counseling in educational settings student at Rowan University. She currently works as a clinical intern in a middle school setting, where she seeks to provide trauma and mental health support to the special education student population. Contact her through LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/nbaliszewski/.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.