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HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — The rush Ally Harrison craved was gone, so she upped the nicotine levels. From three milligrams of the drug, to six, nine, 25 and eventually 50 milligrams.
“I actually started doing cigarettes and 50 nicotine (vaping),” said Harrison, 18, who started vaping the summer before her freshman year of high school after a friend gave her one as a gift. “You wouldn’t get a head rush the seventh or eighth time you did it, so, hey I guess it’s time to up the usage of it, or the amount.”
Harrison was 16 years old – two years below the legal limit at the time – when she bought her first vaping devices and liquid nicotine. She had a driver’s license, and even though it said she was underage, she’d flash it quickly to the cashier and that was good enough to help feed her addiction.
“An elementary kid with an allowance could buy it if they really wanted to,” said Harrison, a Barbers Hill High School senior. “It was 20 bucks at a gas station. It’s not hard. Or if you bought it off of an upperclassman, it was like 10 bucks. Not bad at all.”
Data gathered by 13 Investigates in a groundbreaking statewide effort shows children are starting to vape younger and younger, some only 10 years old.
From Amarillo to Laredo and Beaumont to El Paso, 13 Investigates wanted to know just how widespread is the problem that is now landing teens in hospitals across America.
We asked every public school district in Texas – more than 1,000 of them – how serious their vaping issues are and found more than 15,000 vaping incidents at schools across the state during the 2018-19 school year. That’s about 82 vaping incidents a day.
Now, just two months into the 2019-20 school year, there’s already been 3,800 vaping incidents, including dozens at elementary schools. Last year, one of the vaping incidents happened at Jasper ISD when a fourth or fifth-grader was caught vaping during recess.
The numbers of students vaping statewide is likely even higher, but some schools — including Houston ISD, the largest in Texas — either aren’t tracking the information or won’t provide it.
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which is roughly half the size of HISD, had 489 vaping incidents last school year.
And, just a few months into the 2019-20 year, more than a dozen districts have already exceeded the total number of vaping incidents for all of last year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one manufacturer reports a single vape pod has as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes.
“No level of nicotine is safe for minors, so them using it even once, it’s an issue and we really need to combat that,” Juanita Hawkins, a program specialist at Harris County Public Health, said.
In Texas, 25 percent of the 165 lung injury cases due to vaping were minors, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. One patient was as young as 13 years old.
Earlier this month, state officials confirmed a North Texas woman’s death was linked to vaping, bringing the nationwide total to 34 vaping-related deaths, according to the CDC.
More than 1,600 cases of e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury in the U.S. have been reported to the CDC. Nearly 225 of those patients were under the age of 18.
In Harris County, there have been at least 10 cases, including one Houston teen who spent weeks in the hospital on breathing devices that kept her alive as her lungs failed due to chemical pneumonia from vaping. Earlier this year, a Tomball High School student was hospitalized after collapsing while using a vape pen minutes before choir orientation in September.
Harrison, who quit vaping in February, said the devices are easy for her peers to get their hands on, and even easier to conceal. If she needed a vape or nicotine refill, all she had to do was ask a friend, or a friend of a friend, or someone who she knew was 18.
In April, a Crosby ISD ninth-grader “attempted to sell a vape Juul to another student in the office for $10. He admitted to getting the vape from another male student and tried to sell it,” according to a disciplinary report from the district. In other cases, teachers saw puffs of smoke in the hallway and students admitted to vaping in the restroom, in between class periods and at the cafeteria. A camera even caught a seventh-grade girl vaping on the bus on the way to school.
Those districts aren’t alone, though, and the students vaping are getting younger. About 75 percent of public school districts across Texas have had vaping incidents, according to a 13 Investigates analysis of data from 700 districts.
From showing off e-cigarettes to their classmates to fifth-graders caught smoking them at school, there’s been at least 75 vaping incidents at elementary schools in Texas since last school year. Seven occurred during the 2018-19 year at multiple Cypress-Fairbanks elementary schools. The district declined 13 Investigates’ request for an interview.
“Are you serious? I had no idea,” said one parent, who was waiting to pick up her child from Black Elementary School in Cypress, after 13 Investigates told her about two vaping incidents there last year. “That’s scary. And it’s sad. And I’m wondering how did they even get a hold of it.”
One of the incidents involved an elementary student at Angleton ISD, which has increased educational awareness for students and has plans to install vape detectors to deter students from smoking on campus.
“If you think it’s not going to be happening down at the elementary level, then you’re almost akin to sticking your head in the sand,” Angleton ISD superintendent Phil Edwards said. “We know that’s just not the case. Kids are exposed to many, many things at younger and younger ages and so we have to be proactive and educate our kids at all levels.”
Westside Elementary School staff in Angleton found a fifth-grader vaping in a bathroom campus last school year. It didn’t take long before word traveled to Edwards’ office.
The superintendent said he was immediately concerned about a student, around 11 or 12 years old, being exposed to the drug at that age.
“The student was using it at school,” Edwards told 13 Investigates. “My first thought is, ‘What’s happening in that kid’s life that’s allowing this to happen?’ The second thought is, ‘Do we have a bigger problem at an elementary school than what we know about?'”
During the 2018-19 school year, Angleton ISD had 79 vaping incidents, up from 25 incidents the previous year. The increase got their attention.
“It was very alarming last year in the spring when we were seeing our numbers go up drastically,” Edwards said. “That’s why as we went through the summer months and we’re planning for this year, that was an emphasis from administration to our schools of you need to look at doing some vaping education for our kids and making them know, and we really want to attack this so that kids aren’t exposed to these kinds of things.”
By tracking vaping statistics internally, Edwards said the district was able to react and start lowering this year’s numbers. Still, he said, it’s something they plan to keep a close eye on.
“If you’re not paying attention to the numbers, then you get overwhelmed,” Edwards said. “This is a real crisis. It’s a real problem. And if you’re not paying attention to those kinds of things, the problem is going to continue to grow.
“Part of our responsibilities as a school district is to protect and help our students become healthy, productive citizens and this was part of what we see that fight as,” he said.
Houston ISD said the Texas Education Agency doesn’t require districts to specifically track vaping incidents, so it doesn’t. Aldine and Spring ISDs don’t either. Although Clear Creek ISD said its had vaping incidents, the district also isn’t tracking it and couldn’t provide exact numbers.
Austin ISD, which serves more than 80,000 students, just started tracking the information this year, but is refusing to release its numbers before summer 2020, citing student privacy.
Some health professionals say knowing how often this is happening on school campuses is key.
“If we don’t have the data, you don’t really know the problem you’re going up against,” said Hawkins, with Harris County Public Health.
As Robert Murray, the assistant principal at Hargrave High School in Huffman, welcomed incoming freshmen on the first day of school in August, he made sure students knew about a new addition to the campus — vape detectors in bathrooms across the high school.
Within just two hours of that conversation a detector went off and staff found a THC vape on a freshman. When the device detects vape smoke, it sends an email and text message to administrators who can catch the students in the hallway or match the timestamp with hallway surveillance cameras.
Murray said the cameras and detectors help send a clear message: Vaping won’t be tolerated.
“We have actually had a high percentage of success rate with actually finding the vapes when we get the notification and are able to address it in a timely manner,” Murray said. “I want a kid to make a conscientious decision, is this decision worth this? If I get discovered with this, is it is it truly worth it.”
Huffman ISD’s numbers are looking down this year. There were 18 vaping incidents during the first nine weeks of school at the district. During the 2018-19 school year, the district had 102 incidents.
Barbers Hill ISD, where Ally Harrison is a senior, says in April, it also installed vape detectors in all restrooms. They’ve already caught 18 students within the first seven weeks of this school year.
“It was also cool to do it in the classroom, so we would smoke in the classroom and see who could inhale the most and wave it before the teacher could see,” Harrison said. “It’d be when they would turn around. It’s like Russian roulette, oh you have to do it, now you have to do it.”
Some districts told 13 Investigates the students they wouldn’t typically expect to be vaping are getting their hands on the devices. And, it’s happening across the state, from large cities like San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Midland to schools with less than 100 students, like Marathon ISD in West Texas.
“It stretches across all ethnicities, all socioeconomic levels,” Edwards said. “We’ve had kids who are in athletics exposed to this. We’ve had kids in theater be exposed to this, we have kids who aren’t involved in anything be exposed to this. It’s reaching a wide swath as it goes through our district.”
From colorful packets featuring popular children’s candy and cartoon characters to decorative cases and small, pen or USB-type items plugged into a charging block, districts across Texas have growing collections of confiscated vaping devices.
13 Investigates received hundreds of photos of those devices. One district even confiscated a digital watch, where the face popped off and could be used to vape. Others confiscated vapor pods with fruity flavors like mango, strawberry, cookies and lemon twist.
There were 49 vaping incidents at elementary schools during the 2018-19 school year and the numbers could increase. Within the first quarter of the 2019-20 year, there’s already been 24 cases.
“A kid that would never pick up a cigarette might be a kid that picks up a vape,” Murray said.
Compared to about two years ago, Murray said, they’re much more easy to hide.
“Our kids are just coming up with smaller and smaller devices,” Murray said. “It’s a device that can be easily concealed, whether it’s in the bottom of a shoe or in a hidden pocket. Sometimes even in the strap pocket of a backpack.”
When Harrison woke up in the middle of the night, she knew there was only one thing that would help her fall asleep.
She reached for her vape pen and started smoking. One of her favorites was lemon cookie tart.
Every time she inhaled the smoke, her head felt more lightweight. First a rush, then release.
“I kept like inhaling the smoke over and over and over again to get that head rush and to keep it so I could hurry up and get the head rush over with and go back to sleep,” Harrison said.
It always worked. Except this time; she couldn’t even lift her head off the pillow.
“I guess it made my head spin too much, I threw up,” Harrison said
She told herself to go to bed. To put it in her drawer and never touch it again. And then she woke up.
“It’s like brushing your teeth. I needed it,” Harrison said. “I can’t go to school. Like I can’t do this, you know, it’s just one day. I couldn’t even do one day.”
She gave herself a grace period and said she’d try quitting again in a week. This time, she made it through school without vaping but as soon as she got home she said she was sweating, nervous and had a headache. She went straight for her vape.
Since then, she can’t even count the number of times she tried to quit, before finally reaching out to her mom for help and quitting this past February.
In May, hoping to get a scholarship with the Truth Initiative, she posted a video online aimed at educating her peers about the dangers of tobacco use.
“With all of the courage and all of the struggle and the difficulty, I did it. I stopped. I stopped smoking and I’ve quit vaping and smoking altogether,” Harrison said in the video. “I’m really proud of that.”
The issue has garnered the attention of Texas lawmakers who raised the legal limit to purchase cigarettes and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21 years earlier this year. On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick included public health concerns of minors vaping in his interim charges.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee and Criminal Justice Committee will “consider the emerging public safety concerns from the rise in ‘vaping’ and e-cigarette use by minors (and) study whether current criminal penalties are sufficient to deter individuals from selling these devices and substances used to fill these devices to minors.”
First Lady Melania Trump also showed an interest in vaping, when she held an “intimate discussion on youth vaping and the dangerous impact it is having among our children and within our schools and communities,” according to the White House.
Harrison was among a dozen children who shared their experiences with Trump at the White House earlier this month.
“I actually was sitting next to a kid who started at 11 years old. I thought 14 (when I started) was young and you have an 11-year-old here is doing it,” Harrison said. “It was amazing and I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity. It’s something that’s happening everywhere and if you put an adult in front of teenagers to say quit smoking, no one is going to do it, but if you hear from a kid that’s your age and that has had the symptoms that you’re having and has been open to the addiction like you have, it’s kind of like a world-changer.”
Earlier this year, Harris County Public Health launched a Youth Vaping Prevention Program, where specialists visit schools and provide free 45-minute sessions on the dangers of vaping. The goal is to decrease vaping among students in fifth through 12th grades and offer individualized counseling for anyone who is addicted and wants help.
During a presentation earlier this month at Aldine High School, Hawkins asked a classroom of about 25 students what percentage of their peers do they think vape.
“Eighty-two,” one student said out loud. Another replied with, “90.”
The lowest percentage anyone said was 60. The teens were surprised to learn that the CDC says only about 20 percent of high school students report they used an e-cigarette in 2018. And, almost everyone in the class raised their hand when Hawkins asked how many have seen a teen use a vape at least once.
Hawkins said a guess of at least 60 percent of classmates are vaping is pretty typical for each session.
“Your perception is your reality,” Hawkins said. “If I see all of my friends vaping, I’m thinking maybe that’s how that is all the time. With research it’s you have to rely on people, number one, answering the question but also telling the truth, so it could be that the numbers haven’t caught up to what they are today.”
When she was vaping, Harrison said so were her friends. It was all over social media and if you didn’t have one, you didn’t fit in.
Now, she said, she’s making sure to tell her siblings and friends about the dangers of vaping. She also plans to continue advocating against large companies, who she says are marketing the devices to children.
“It was destroying me, “Harrison said. “I broke my mom’s heart. I broke my family’s heart. I lost a lot of trust and I let myself succumb to an addiction.”
It’s been eight months since she quit, but Harrison vividly remembers the taste of her favorite vape and the 20-second head rush that brought her relief. The craving is still there at times, but at least now she can breathe better and the chest pain and coughing have gone away.
“I will never touch a vape for the rest of my life,” she said.