Ha ha ha. Plymouth’s superintendent of schools, Gary Maestas, allowed himself a short laugh. He was thinking about the real-time vape detectors he’s planning to install in the town’s high school bathrooms, and how the students don’t yet know. “They’ll find out soon enough,” Maestas said. Ha ha ha.
But the kids — they’re not the ones Maestas is laughing at. The children are the ones he’s trying to protect — from a multibillion-dollar vaping and e-cigarette industry that has lured millions of teenagers with sexy branding and child-friendly flavors, and along the way turned school bathrooms into ground zero of the vaping wars.
Last fall, school systems across Massachusetts sent dire warnings home to parents who had never even heard of vaping, even as their children were puffing away. That outreach did not extinguish the behavior. This fall, a growing number of towns are taking the fight directly to the girls and boys rooms, and installing sensors, or considering doing so, despite tight budgets and equipment that can cost as much as $995 per unit.
“Vaping wasn’t even in our vocabulary five years ago,” Maestas said.
Now it’s so common that the following are true:
■ At some schools, the bathroom is called the “Juul room,” only partially in jest.
■ Parents and teachers regularly hear from kids who are afraid to go to the bathroom, worried they’ll be wrongly accused if a teacher walks in while others are vaping.
■ The Food and Drug Administration, as part of its September first-of-its-kind anti-youth-vaping public service campaign, produced posters specifically for bathroom walls.
“It’s a lot easier to wipe your butt than your lungs,” one reads. “Vapes can expose your lungs to acrolein, which can cause irreversible damage.”
“Strangely enough, some students come in here to put crap into their bodies,” another poster advises. “Vapes can contain some of the same cancer-causing chemicals found in cigarettes.”
Derek Peterson, founder and CEO of Soter Technologies, the firm that makes the Fly Sense detection devices being used by Massachusetts schools, said he gets calls twice a week from crying parents. “They are grasping at straws,” he said. “Some parents have told me the kids are not only vaping nicotine but THC.”
Fly Sense uses hard-wired sensors that detect chemicals from vaping and send alerts to school officials in real time. They can hustle to the bathroom and try to catch the kid mid-puff, or review security footage from outside the bathroom, if it exists, to see who might have gone in or out.
The product, which has no cameras or microphones, was originally created to detect changes in sound levels that may indicate bullying. “But that is an afterthought now,” Peterson said. “Vaping has overtaken everything.”
Hundreds of school districts in 21 states and Canada have purchased Fly Sense detectors, Peterson said. His website features a live meter that counts 7,842 incidents detected since Sept. 1, “and counting!”
In Plymouth, Maestas knows that even a sensor in every bathroom wouldn’t stop kids from vaping. That education is the more powerful tool.
But there has already been plenty of that — warnings from the surgeon general and anti-drug abuse educators and from nearly every adult a kid knows.
The FDA has announced a crackdown on vape retailers and a possible ban on flavored e-liquid.
And Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office is investigating Juul Labs and other online e-cigarette companies to determine if they are in violation of state laws and regulations by failing to prevent minors from purchasing their products. The AG has sent cease-and-desist letters to two companies, ordering the retailers to stop selling Juul and other electronic smoking products in Massachusetts without an adequate age-verification system.
Juul has committed to spending $30 million on education and youth vaping prevention efforts and says it has implemented an “action plan” to combat underage usage.
But the cat-and-mouse game goes on.
Georgetown Middle/High School installed 10 bathroom sensors earlier this year, at a cost of about $7,500, and an additional 10 will be installed once funding comes through, according to Pamela Lundquist, chair of GeorgetownCARES, a substance abuse prevention coalition.
So, do they work? That’s an interesting question. Although the sensors were installed in September, they’re still being fine-tuned. But since the small white boxes were attached to the bathroom ceilings, student reports of bathroom vaping have dropped. “We think they’re acting as a deterrent,” said Maria Lysen, an assistant principal.
In Natick, another town that’s considering sensors (along with Scituate), the interim superintendent, Anna Nolin, described the challenge society is facing.
“Prior to vaping our smoking rates were almost nonexistent,” she said. “The case had been made that smoking was an unhealthy and ugly habit and not seen as sophisticated. Now we need to make this same case all over again, but for vaping.”
Meanwhile, even as schools invest in bathroom sensors, the vaping forces are one step ahead. Those with discreet or hands-free vaping needs can now purchase hoodies or backpacks with integrated vaping delivery systems.
“We’re seeing fantastic growth,” said Tom Gruger, the chief executive of Denver-based Vaprwear, which asks website users to self-verify that they are 21 or older.
“We’re trying to be as cautious as possible,” he said, “but kids will do things, as you know.”
Ha ha ha.Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.