Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Teens during my youth thought it was cool to light up Kools in the school bathroom. Today’s kids, as young as 6th grade, feel peer pressure to indulge in modern-tech flavors delivered through vaping.

Sneaking doses from e-cigarettes or, “juuling,” has emerged as “the No. 1 offender at Arlington Public Schools,” according to substance abuse counselor Jenny Sexton, speaking at the Feb. 12 exploration of the hot topic at the Arlington Committee of 100. As illicit customers in a new $30 billion new market, kids can sometimes inhale — directly or second-hand — one Juul pod’s equivalent of 20 cigarettes of nicotine.

It’s a tricky discipline challenge, said Sexton, who is “stretched thin” counseling populations at 24 elementary schools and two Arlington middle schools. Vaping devices resemble an easily concealed flash drive or an inhaler, “and they are marketed like ice cream or candy,” she said, displaying samples of colorful packaging. Some kids “are going into the bathroom every hour,” emerging smelling “like a fruity lotion — so you wonder, did they put on hand lotion?”

One in nine high school kids vapes daily, she reported; 1 in 20 have used in the past 30 days, 17.2 million nationwide. Her survey at Williamsburg Middle School showed that 100 percent of students knew where to buy a vaping device (7-Eleven, for example). The reason kids are attracted is that “doing it makes them feel different,” Sexton said. “Studies show that within six months, most who use these products are using cigarettes.”

The school system, following a nationwide warning of risks of lung cancer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a policy last October iterating that possession of tobacco or vaping products is prohibited on school property.

So far, the national toll is 33 deaths and 1,500 related illnesses. “Combatting vaping in our schools is a community-wide effort,” it said, citing collaboration among police, health officials, school staff and parents. “If your child is vaping, and they need support to quit, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the substance abuse counselor.”

The good news for worried parents is Arlington’s Second Chance program. For first-time perpetrators, it’s an alternative to suspension that substitutes counseling and erasure of the charge from a kid’s record.

But there are larger policy complications.

Reuben Varghese, the county’s public health director, said counseling and preventive education are among the least effective remedies. “Risk-taking behavior is part and parcel of being a teenager.” But the “anxiety” that leads kids to experiment with vaping “occurs in the larger context.” That favors a focus on changing policies and socioeconomic conditions, Varghese said, citing past successes in fluoridation of water and tobacco taxes.

Insight into the politics was provided by Dylan Bishop, lobbyist for the Virginia Smoke Free Association. Vaping, he said, while never advisable for children, is 95 percent safer than smoking. Vaping products “don’t contain most of cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco,” he said. Rather than imposing higher taxes or flavor bans that cause “ham-fisted damage to a legitimate industry,” his business group favors banning online sales and cracking down on fake IDs in convenience stores.

There’s talk of smoke detectors in bathrooms, but they are expensive.

Sexton is delivering presentations on “peer pressure refusal skills” to health classes as early as 5th grade. Parents “understand,” she said, “we’re there to support their student.”

Lots of white was worn at the soiree put on by Arlington’s League of Women Voters in Clarendon on Feb. 18 at Ms. Peacock’s Champagne Lounge.

Remarks by officers Joan Porte, Nancy Tate and Seema Jain honored both the league’s 100th anniversary and the centenary of the constitutional amendment giving women the vote.

Also enjoyed was a black-belt suffrage movement trivia contest. We were tested on knowing the difference between Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harry Burn.