9 Investigates

Tobacco use in Florida schools doubles again, hitting record high; officials blame vaping

9 Investigates has an update on the vaping problem in Florida schools.

Investigative reporter Karla Ray first reported that the number of students disciplined for tobacco use in Florida schools nearly doubled in just one year, and that school leaders believe it’s due to e-cigarette use.

Now, just-released numbers from the 2018/2019 school year show tobacco incidents more than doubled again, hitting a record high of nearly 18,000 students caught smoking or with smoking devices on school grounds.

READ: Tobacco use in Florida schools doubles; what’s being done to snuff out the trend

Though some states have begun to separate e-cigarette use from tobacco use when collecting student discipline data, Florida has not. However, statewide, there was a steady decline in tobacco-related incidents in schools over the course of five years, before spiking again as e-cigarettes gained popularity.

In the 2016/2017 school year, tobacco-related incidents hit a low of just over 4,000 students disciplined statewide. In 2017/2018, when e-cigarettes started to grow in popularity, the number jumped to more than 8,000.

At Seminole High School, Principal Jordan Rodriguez and his staff are on constant watch for clouds of vapor in the courtyard, and even in class.

“I don't remember the last time I saw a pack of cigarettes confiscated off of a student,” Rodriguez said. “Overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, the tobacco violations have been vaporizers.”

READ: FDA crackdown on vaping flavors has blind spot: disposables

Rodriguez says aside from the nearly 18,000 students who were disciplined for tobacco-related incidents in the last school year, more simply weren’t caught.

“It's not like a cigarette, it's not like a cigar or marijuana, where it hits you and you know what it is,” Rodriguez said. “Kids can be very brazen with these devices. They can be very discreet with these devices.”

Locally, all but one of the districts in Central Florida more than doubled in tobacco-related student discipline for the 2018/2019 school year.

Brevard School’s numbers jumped by 166%, from 316 incidents in the 2017/2018 school year to 843 last year.

Volusia Schools leaders also report a big jump of 182%, with 681 incidents in 2018/2019 compared to 241 the year prior.

The number of Osceola County students caught smoking or vaping also more than doubled, from 51 cases in 2017/2018 to 138 in 2018/2019. The same was true in Seminole County, with 92 cases in the 2017/2018 school year compared to 234 in 2018/2019.

Lake County students saw the largest jump, nearly a 200% increase from 127 incidents in 2017/2018 to 375 in 2018/2019.

Only Orange County Public Schools saw a more modest jump, with 474 incidents during the last school year compared to 330 in the 2017/2018 school year.

READ: 9 facts about vaping, linked disease and death

In Seminole County, school leaders have installed vapor detectors on some campuses, and brought in a speaker who has gotten sick from e-cigarettes, in an effort to curb the problem.

“I pray that my kids on this campus aren't the ones who learn from trauma, seeing someone put in the hospital for these things,” Rodrigeuz said.

Orlando Health toxicologist Dr. Josef Thundiyil says the numbers are concerning.

“My biggest concern is when young people are using it, because it’s a lifetime of use they have the potential to have,” Thundiyil said. “So if someone starts at 14 or 16, and they get hooked, they can end up being on a very high concentration of nicotine for decades and decades, and those health effects are still unknown.”

Thundiyil said one major challenge for doctors is that many don’t consider vaping to be the same as smoking, meaning some won’t admit they are vaping when having conversations with their doctors. He also points out that the use of e-cigarettes is so new, the long-term effects just aren’t completely understood.

“What we recall from the 1980s and 1990s from that burnt-looking lung, we don’t know yet what it’s going to look like from vaping,” Thundiyil said.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.