The vaping epidemic enveloped the nation’s schools so quickly parents, educators and health professionals had little time to act.

It was only a few years ago that we were reveling in the news that the rate of cigarette smoking among teens was lower than it had been in decades. Then, seemingly in an instant, we were dealing with soaring vaping use by students in high school and even middle school. About 37% of 12th graders reported vaping in 2018, compared with 28% in 2017, according to a study the National Institutes for Health.

“Vaping ... it isn’t just in Salem. It’s everywhere — high schools across the state, middle schools across the state,” says Samantha Meier, interim principal at Salem (Mass.) High School. “It’s just a really big problem where kids don’t know how damaging it is, how dangerous it is, and they don’t know it’s a big deal until it’s a big deal.”

When vaping grows old, says Dr. Richard Miech, who led the study, those children often move on to traditional smoking.

“These results suggest that vaping is leading youth into nicotine use and nicotine addiction, not away from it,” he says.

And make no mistake, children are being targeted by the industry. Last month, Attorney General Maura Healey sued e-cigarette giant Juul Labs Inc., saying the company was marketing its products to young people using social media and other tactics.

By the time kids believe the vaping is bad for them, it is difficult to quit.

“Wherever there’s low security in the school, you see them smoking vapes,” says Salem High junior Ruis Matos de los Santos, the 16-year-old chair of the Salem Youth Commission. “You also see teenagers skipping school, skipping class to smoke.”

Against that backdrop, a new program from the Salem schools bears watching. This time, it’s the teens who are taking the lead.

The schools, in partnership with the North Shore Health Center and the North Shore Medical Center, recently launched a “vape buyback” program. Any student turning in a vaping device will receive a $50 gift card to Target, Market Basket or another local business where vaping or e-cigarette devices are not sold.

The idea to launch the program in Salem came from de los Santos and other teens involved with the Youth Commission.

“We’ve heard of other schools and teens doing this, and we felt it would be a really cool thing to bring to Salem,” 18-year-old Aiyana Lilly said.

It could work anywhere — Haverhill, Methuen, anywhere in the Merrimack Valley.

That students are taking the initiative is reason for optimism. The vape buyback program also requires that teens attend smoking cessation programming; they get their $50 gift card only after attending four 45-minute sessions. Those sessions could make all the difference for e-smokers truly hoping to kick the habit.

“Kids are the victim here, but they get to feel embarrassed, like they don’t have control over the decision they’re making,” says Lilly, a senior at Salem Academy and a member of the Youth Commission. “So it’s hard to admit, ‘oh, I was taken advantage of.’”

The program also highlights the close cooperation of the education and health communities in dealing with the epidemic. North Shore Medical Center is paying for the $50 gift cards being offered to the city’s nearly 1,500 high school students.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the teens won’t turn around and get another vape pen somewhere else. The gun buyback programs on which the effort is partially modeled have proven ineffective at getting weapons off the street; much of the vaping initiative’s success will depend on the effectiveness of the cessation programming.

“It isn’t a ‘just say no’ thing,” says Maggie Brennan, CEO of North Shore Community Health. “This is for your health. We’re offering, ‘here’s a path you can do’ — not just, ‘you’re done. You quit. It’s all over.’ It’s ‘we’re going to help you with a new way of being, without that serious, unhealthy dose of nicotine you’re getting.’”

That’s a welcome approach, Lilly says. “At this point, there are so many kids struggling that have nowhere to go.”


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