Schools around the country are cracking down on e-cigarrette use, with some going so far as to extend harsher punishments for e-cigarette users than those who use traditional cigarettes.
The devices heat a nicotine solution, resulting in the production of a vapor instead of burning tobacco. They have recently become more popular than their traditional counterparts among teenagers, causing schools to begin to crack down on their use, as the devices, also known as vaporizers, can also be used for illegal substances such as marijuana.
According to an annual government survey of over 41,000 students, 16% of 10th graders had tried an e-cigarette in the past month. The same was true for 17% of high school seniors. Meanwhile, traditional smoking had been tried for the first time by 7% of 10th graders and 14% of seniors. The survey did not question repeat use or whether teens were merely trying something new.
Most schools have included the devices in their anti-tobacco policies, which generally hold a punishment for students including detention, a letter home, and in some cases, a tobacco education class, writes Michael Felberbaum for Yahoo News.
Meanwhile, schools in states including North Carolina, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Washington are considering the devices to be similar to bongs or pipes. Punishment for having devices like these mean long suspensions and required drug testing for students, as well as having the possession of drug paraphernalia written into their permanent records.
While most states have banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, health and public policy experts remain unable to determine whether the devices are actually helpful to those trying to quit smoking, or if they actually introduce new users to the world of paper cigarettes filled with tobacco.
For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration has suggested regulations be placed on e-cigarettes, including making the sale to minors illegal and requiring health warning labels.
While Gregory Conley, president of the e-cigarette advocacy group American Vaping Association, agrees that the devices should not be sold to minors, he said it was a "pure over-reaction" to give students caught with them harsher punishments than those who use traditional cigarettes.
Yet schools continue to proceed with caution as the situation continues to grow.
"We don't know if it's vapor or some kind of hashish oil or if it's some kind of illegal substance," said Anne Garrett, superintendent of Haywood County Schools in western North Carolina, where the policies were changed this month to treat the devices as drug paraphernalia.
Some parents feel the punishments are too harsh. Parent Kathleen Leone refused to allow school officials to drug test her 16-year-old daughter after she was found with her brother's e-cigarette in her purse. Her daughter also received a four-day suspension.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that she should have it, but you know, she's 16, and 16-year-olds do stupid things," said Leone, who's also a teacher. "In her record it says she was suspended for refusal to take (a drug test), and that's something that could affect her chances getting into a university."
While there is not yet an official position on e-cigarettes by the National Association of State Boards of Education, Executive Director Kristen Amundson said she thinks the association would view them the same as traditional cigarettes. However, she went on to say that if a particular school is having an issue, then perhaps a clear message on their use would be beneficial.
"But it is always better if school administrators use good judgment and discretion," said Amundson, a former Virginia legislator and teacher who also served on the school board of northern Virginia's Fairfax County. "That's how we end up not having to hear a case of a kindergartner who brought a little paring knife to school suddenly being recommended for expulsion for bringing a weapon to school."