The national trend of teens vaping nicotine or marijuana has hit the Keys en masse, officials say. Monroe County children have some of the highest rates of vaping in the state. And many parents are concerned. Students as young as 10 have tried vaping, according to state statistics.
However, when Keys Weekly reached out to local parents and officials to discuss this issue, many refused to go on the record. The high prevalence of Keys children concealing and vaping on the sly, even on school district property, is a very delicate topic.
The use of e-cigarettes is often called “vaping,” per CDC.gov. The website stated that e-cigarettes may contain either nicotine or marijuana and “The use of e-cigarettes is unsafe for kids, teens, and young adults. … (It) can harm adolescent brain development.”
Alison Kerr, public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County, provided 2020 statistics proving the high local student vaping rate.
“In 2020, 9.8% of (Monroe County) youth used (tobacco) electronic vapors on school property,” she said. “The state’s average for this was 6.6%.”\
These numbers are from the Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, which tracks tobacco use among public middle and high school students for the Florida Department of Health’s Bureau of Tobacco Prevention and Control.
According to this data, Monroe County’s youth aged 11-17 scored consistently higher than the state average for the following factors in the latest available data (2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020): youth who have ever tried electronic vaping, youth who currently use electronic vaping and youth who are exposed to secondhand electronic vapor smoke.
The 2020 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey stated that the proportion of Monroe County youth — as young as age 10 — who reported having vaped marijuana is 5.7 percent of middle schoolers and 17.5 percent of high schoolers.
A concerned mom of students who are attending schools in the Monroe County School District said — on condition of anonymity — that teens have told her, “Everybody vapes. You can tell when you go in the school bathrooms by the smell.”
“Parents are concerned,” she continued. “And the school district is in a hard position. They don’t know how to stop it. It’s an uphill battle.”
One of the reasons it’s an “uphill battle” for the schools is that students are able to hide their vaping very easily on school property. Amazon sells vaping paraphernalia, such as a container designed to look like a thick black Sharpie.
But Keys officials have been working on solutions for the teen vaping problem in the Keys.
“Teen vaping is a deeply concerning problem for the school district,” said superintendent Theresa Axford. “We are using a three-pronged approach to combat it. First, we have installed vaping sensors in bathrooms that are used most frequently. With these sensors, we can determine how extensive vaping is and discover students who are using vapes. Next, we are giving consequences to students who are caught vaping. Lastly, we are making education regarding the harmful effects of vaping as part of the consequence. Education of students on the hazards of vaping is the most important part of our work. Schools are also doing a public service announcement on the serious health threats that vaping causes and having a proactive stance on getting the word out that vaping is not good for anyone.”
Maureen Dunleavy, regional vice president of Monroe County’s Guidance/Care Center, said her organization is providing vaping prevention services at high schools and middle schools. “We are working with several local agencies in partnership, including the school district, Department of Health, Tobacco-free Florida and the Monroe County Coalition,” she said. “It is truly a group effort.”
Champions for Change, a drug and alcohol prevention club for students based out of Marathon High School, has gotten creative with educating parents about the issue. The club conducted an educational event, called “Hidden in Plain Sight,” to teach where children are potentially hiding evidence of substance abuse. A typical teen bedroom was recreated at MHS, and parents were invited to look around the faux room display for clues.
MHS educators Christina Belotti and Tina Belotti spearhead Champions for Change. Tina said her students explained to her the reason that vaping may be so popular among Keys youth. “They say they grew up in a culture where drinking, drugging, vaping and smoking is the social norm,” she said. “‘It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.’”
For more information about teen vaping and solutions for prevention, go to monroecountycoalition.com.