9 Investigates

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

9 Investigates has learned that the number of students disciplined for tobacco use in Florida schools nearly doubled in just one year, and school leaders believe it’s due to e-cigarette use.

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.

When the bell rings at Seminole High School, thousands of teens switch classes through one courtyard at a time, and principal Jordan Rodriguez says sometimes, he spots a cloud of vapor.

READ: 9 facts about vaping, linked disease and death

“On a campus our size, it’s not uncommon to pull one vaping device off a student each day,” Rodriguez said.

9 Investigates crunched Florida Department of Education discipline data, and found tobacco incidents nearly doubled statewide from the 2016/2017 school year to 2017/2018. That increase came after we saw a four-year-low in 2016/2017 of just over 4,000 incidents statewide; the number shooting to more than 8,000 in 2017/2018.

“That increase is 100% related to the use of e-cigs and vaping,” Rodriguez said.

READ: Seminole County students see effects of vaping, drug use up close through new campaign

Rodriguez expects 2018/2019 numbers, due out this spring, will meet or beat that record. Other schools in Seminole County have even installed vapor-detectors to try to crack down on the problem.

“It’s very possible for these things to happen in a classroom, in a hallway, going across a courtyard,” Rodriguez said.

The problem, Rodriguez points out, is that some of the devices look just like USB flash drives.

Drilled down by district, Orange and Brevard counties saw the sharpest increases in Central Florida, more than doubling in tobacco-related discipline year over year.

READ: Texas teen, 15, becomes youngest vaping-related fatality in US

Osceola and Lake counties both doubled, and Volusia County incidents increased by nearly 90%.

“My biggest concern is when young people are using it, because it’s a lifetime of use they have the potential to have,” said Dr. Josef Thundiyil, medical toxicologist at Orlando Health Orlando Regional Medical Center. “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 says one major challenge for doctors like him 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 known.

“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.