Students Help Each Other Try To End Vaping Addictions

Just before spring break last year, a high school student gave school nurse Beth Shidner her vape battery.

The student had tried to quit before. After all, she was an athlete, a team captain, a senior at the time looking at colleges — the first in her family to do so.

“I had just had my quinceanera and I thought, ‘Why not,’” said the student, who tried vaping for the first time as a teen. “I had never smoked before, but when I learned, it was easy. And it wasn’t hard to make a decision like that because you want to fit in. I know it’s cliche to say, but I never had friends in my grade. If that was the only thing keeping me in that friend group, I was going to do it.”

She said vaping was a release from the anxiety of being a Jackson Hole High School student, trying to fit in and trying to feel socially secure — and even a little more like an adult. She had been offered a vape pen before, when she was in the sixth and seventh grades, but it was easier to say no back then.

“Everyone. Everyone is vaping,” she said of Jackson youth. “There is not a specific group who does it. It’s athletes, whites, Latino, young people, popular kids, the quiet kids, AP honors kids. Everyone.”

There are a lot of statistics that suggest youth vaping has increased locally, statewide and nationally. But nothing compares to being on the front lines every day with students who are vaping, hiding it and getting emotionally, mentally and physically hurt from vaping products like Elf Bars or Chilled Mint Vuse ePods.

“I don’t think we knew what was happening until it was crushing us,” Jackson Hole High School and Summit Innovations nurse Shidner said of rampant vaping among Jackson’s youth. “I think a lot of parents don’t know what vape is.”

‘Vape nurse’ sees impact

Known throughout the public school district as the “vape nurse,” Shidner called youth vaping “an epidemic” during a meeting of the Community Prevention Coalition of Teton County this summer. She reported to the group that vaping was impacting not only student health but also academics as more and more students were unable to make it through high school class periods without needing a break to vape. In that same meeting, school administrators attested to Shidner’s report, adding that they were spending a lot of time chasing kids out of restrooms who were stealing away to take a hit on a vape pen.

It’s not just teenagers. There are now vape detectors in Jackson Elementary School, and drug sweeps at Jackson Hole Middle School turned up vape pens in backpacks this past spring. A kindergartner brought a family member’s vape pen to school one day. The elementary school principal didn’t know what it was, so the principal called Shidner.

During the coalition’s summer meeting, attendees asked what vaping was and why kids were able to get away with using nicotine.

“It’s easy for kids to get,” said another one of Shidner’s students, who came to the nurse for help last year.

The high school graduate is looking forward to studying this fall in one of the country’s premier universities and credited Shidner with supporting her through fighting her vaping addiction.

The student said any kid with a parent’s credit card could place an online order for delivery. There are almost no regulations for online ordering. Kids also buy the products locally, knowing which stores ask for age identification and which stores don’t. There are also kids with fake IDs and vape runs to Idaho Falls, even though the minimum age in both Idaho and Wyoming to buy nicotine is 21.

Students also told the News&Guide that older teens are targeting younger students for sales.

The student who surrendered her vape battery to Shidner said that when she was vaping in high school, she was spending $80 to $100 a month on vaping products. She said kids would get in an order of vape products, throw up a SnapChat on their smartphones advertising that they had the product, the SnapChat would disappear, and then students would know who to see for more vape.

“I wasn’t surprised to hear [Shidner’s] description of what she’s seeing with teens,” said Beverly Shore, community prevention coordinator. “I’m aware of the epidemic with vaping. It changed during COVID. It’s always been a concern and issue, but my only surprise was that it hasn’t improved. If anything, it’s gotten worse.”

Rising local epidemic

Prior to the global pandemic, work to address youth vaping was on local leadership’s radar. Community members, school officials and elected officials have all commented on the rise of youth vaping. The Town of Jackson tried and failed to pass a ban on the sale of flavored vape in 2019. The Jackson Police Department doesn’t do “age checks’’ on local businesses to make sure proprietors are carding customers who look too young to buy vape products. Age compliance checks do include alcohol, cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

Ultimately, Shidner said, big tobacco won out.

“When I started [working as a nurse], my job was in oncology, and I took care of people with cancer at St. John’s,” Shidner said of working with people with high-need care. “This move to the high school, I’m thinking maybe I’ll be around people who are not dying as much. I’m looking around, and I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on with these kids?’ These are 14-year-olds who can’t run a mile. Their attention spans are nonexistent. They can’t sit in a full class without needing to vape. How did this happen? I’ll tell you how it happened: Vape got marketed to children.”

The 2022 Wyoming Prevention Needs Assessment found 30% of Teton County 10th and 12th graders are vaping 30 days or more per year. The state average is 41%.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,“in 2022, 85.5% of high school students and 81.5% of middle school students who used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days reported using a flavored e-cigarette during that time.”

“The big thing is that everyone thought that they made e-cigarettes so people wouldn’t smoke,” Shidner said of vaping. “Adults didn’t know their teens were vaping until they were hooked. My most powerful tool that I have shown kids is the ingredient in an e-cigarette. There’s no water. One of my students is an athlete, and he sometimes takes 50 to 100 hits a day. His lungs are coated in oil, and the long-term risks are so bad. We’ve got to get through to our parents that this is so bad.”

Anxious to help students, Shidner turned to teens and asked them for help.

“I don’t think people are paying enough attention to this stuff,” she added. “If we have fifth graders hooked on nicotine — where is all this going?” she said of putting a finger in a dam that is bursting.

Lose the Vuse

Shidner estimates that local vaping use is nearing more than 70% of teens who are using it regularly.

“Regardless of what the true number is, it’s still a big problem in our community,” said Dr. Travis Riddell, Teton County’s public health officer. “With so many of these things, education is big around addressing the problem, like e-bike safety. And regardless of the percentage, it’s very likely to be an unacceptably high number of teens who are vaping. We have known for a long time that alcohol use and drug use is high in the community.”

Last year, Shidner began wondering whether there was a more effective way to teach younger students about the dangers of vaping.

“I thought, ugh, this is going nowhere,” she said of talking to students in the lower grades. “And vaping is getting so bad, and I can’t just stand there and talk about it. So I started asking students for help.

“I have always wanted to start what I considered a support group. I’ve said, ‘I want to help you guys. I want to help you quit.’ But no one was going to sign up for a support group affiliated with the school.”

So last year she went to students — some who were vaping, some who had quit, some who said they had never tried it — and asked them for help. They all said yes.

The group is called, Lose the Vuse, a play on the Vuse e-pods.

“It’s a peer-to-peer group, and I think it’s going great,” Shidner said.

Since Lose the Vuse was established, her students have addressed middle school and elementary school students, telling them to not even try the most addictive thing they have ever done: vape.

Nicotine use in school is illegal and can be punishable with a monetary fine through the court system. But working to establish trusting relationships with students has gained ground, Teton County Sheriff’s Deputy and School Resource Officer Tia Stanton said.

Stanton was invited to come alongside Shidner, and together the two women are working with the school community, students and parents to be the boots on the ground taking on vaping addictions one student at a time.

“The school district is doing a great job fostering these relationships,” Stanton said. “We want to come at this issue as a united front using education and prevention methods. That takes a lot of people to make that possible, and I am just one little piece of the puzzle.”

At the August school board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Scott Crisp recognized the peer-to-peer group and progress Shidner has been making.

“We are very transparent,” Crisp told the school board about wanting parents to know and see what the schools are experiencing with vape. “We don’t hide from it or run from it.”

But he said there are a lot of places that students can hide and vape — restrooms being an Achilles’ heel. Even with upgraded vape detectors, students’ abilities to hide their vaping products can make it difficult to meet them at the moment they are vaping, Stanton said. But “catching” a kid isn’t the goal.

“Yes, you make mistakes, but you can ask for help; that’s what we’re here for,” Stanton said. “That’s the step that [Shidner] has taken with students, and there is never a time where a kid isn’t in her office. That is the culture we’re trying to create.”

Heading into the school year, Shidner’s Lose the Vuse group has grown, with more students joining in honest conversations with their peers. After the second week of school, Shidner and the Lose the Vuse group will have talked with every class at the high school while looking ahead to talking with younger students.

The Community Prevention Coalition has worked closely with the school district through the years using grant monies to purchase educational materials that address substance abuse, including nicotine use and vaping. This year the coalition expanded its educational reach to include students in kindergarten through third grade.

The coalition also plans to take another stab at a comprehensive smoke-free ordinance. The current ordinance gives local businesses the option of voluntarily banning smoking outside their establishments. A more robust ordinance, Shore said, would ban smoking and vaping outside town and county businesses.

“The day I gave my battery to Beth, I went hiking on Josies Ridge,” recalled the team captain who worked with Shidner to quit vaping. “I was so out of breath, and that’s when I was like, I love being outdoors. If I feel free up there in the mountains, I want to be free without having trouble breathing, and that’s when I was able to stop.

“And it’s hard to get to that point. I lost my biggest friendships to vaping, but we have to be true to ourselves. We need to know it’s not OK to vape.”