ANDERSON COUNTY, Tenn. — According to research from the CDC, 1 in every 5 high school students uses vaping products, and so does 1 in every 20 middle school students.
"It is really an epidemic," said Isabella Kelly, who graduated from Oak Ridge High School in 2020.
It isn't a new trend and many schools across East Tennessee have worked to prevent teens from vaping in previous years. However, school faculty said they fear some students' nicotine addictions may have worsened over pandemic quarantines.
"A lot of our students, unfortunately, have been vaping for a year or two," said Anna Hunt, the school health coordinator for Anderson County Schools.
Hurt said that she is concerned students who use e-cigarettes and were isolated during the pandemic developed stronger dependencies on their nicotine devices. However, she also said she hopes that a lack of access to vapes limited some students from experimenting during the pandemic.
She said that she has seen students who start using vaping products get younger every year. Now, she said that children in middle school are using tobacco products.
"We're finding that children in middle school are the primary clientele that big tobacco is looking for," Hurt said.
She said vape flavors like blueberry, watermelon, and bubblegum could seem appealing to some younger kids and that they are at an age when they may start smoking after peers ask them to.
The most typical way for a child to be introduced to vaping is through an older family member or a peer group.
"A lot of kids in middle school think that vaping is one of those that brings you into that 'in' group," Hurt said.
Kelly agreed. Before graduating, she said that she experienced some peer pressure to vape.
"There'd be times here and there where people would ask me if I wanted to take a hit," Kelly said.
She said that she has not used nicotine. However, she said she saw peers bringing their vapes inside the school walls.
"A lot of kids would bring it into school, even in for lunch or off-campus lunch," Kelly said.
Hurt said bringing vaping products where they're not allowed and using them in secret is a typical effect of nicotine, and Anderson County Schools is trying to stop it.
"Addiction is part of it," Hurt said.
They have vape detectors in some middle school and high school bathrooms to be able to detect smoking within the school walls. As the school year starts, it didn't take long for them to start getting notifications.
"We get a lot of hits, unfortunately," Hurt said.
The detectors send emails to the administration if they identify nicotine in the air or if the device is vandalized.
"When you're striking it, it will send a message," Hurt said.
The email tells the administration which bathroom the incident is occurring in, the level of nicotine in the air, and the exact time.
The county also offers peer mentorship through ASAP of Anderson to connect kids to support groups that help them stop addiction.
Kelly is a youth ambassador for the program, helping other students avoid peer pressure.
"I know it's not so easy for other people to say 'no,'" Kelly said. "Especially whenever people ask you constantly."
Kelly said she found the strength to always say no when she attended school.
"I never really was inclined to do it," Kelly said. "I think the main reason was because of being an ambassador. I learned about the bad effects of vaping and substance misuse."
Hurt said mentorships from ambassadors through the ASAP of Anderson group are a key component in the county's fight against the vaping epidemic. The mentorships help establish ambassadors as peers for students, and they can give positive advice in that role instead of urging others to smoke.
The schools offer other programs such as Law Enforcement Against Drugs (LE.A.D.) with the Anderson County Sheriff's Office. In this program, students learn from officers about how to refuse peer pressure and the potential dangers of dabbling with vaping and other drugs.
"We have really worked diligently in implementing K-12 programs this year," Hurt said. "So we have a comprehensive approach to vaping prevention."
Through these measures, Anderson County Schools is creating local solutions to fight the national vaping epidemic.