At the South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education meeting on Aug. 13, vaping was in the spotlight during public comment.
Resident Gisella Benitez, parent of a South Pasadena High School sophomore and another SPHS graduate, pressed the board to take action on the growing “epidemic” of students using e-cigarettes daily on campus, out in the open and in the classroom.
Battery-powered vaping devices produce clouds of vapor usually containing nicotine, flavoring and other chemicals that the user inhales. Because the devices’ liquids are vaporized, rather than burned, the odor and easily recognizable clouds of vapor rapidly dissipate, making it difficult for teachers and staff to catch students in the act.
Benitez was a driving force behind the expanded smoking ban in South Pasadena last year that grew the existing ban to include public sidewalks, including walkways, parkways, curbs and gutters. As she noted to the City Council last year during the ordinance discussion, she lost her husband, Ricardo, to lung cancer in 2017. Ricardo was not a smoker, and second-hand smoke was a suspected contributing factor to his lung cancer.
Benitez told the Board of Education on Tuesday that when she signed up her son for classes at SPHS this year, a multitude of forms were required on integrity, class conduct and cell-phone use. She urged the board to include education and a promise to not do drugs on campus, to be signed by the student.
“We’re not holding them accountable,” said Benitez. “They’re getting away with what they’re doing and it’s an epidemic. According to the surgeon general, vaping is a youth epidemic and we need to do something about it.”
According to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 3.6 million middle schoolers and high-school students currently engage in vaping with e-cigarettes. That number has increased 1.5 million from the previous year. The survey noted a 70 percent increase with high-school students and a 48 percent increase in middle-schoolers. Some students have reported vaping as early as 12 years old.
“Most kids do not know that flavored cigarettes are high in nicotine,” said Benitez. “Nicotine is one of the most toxic of all poisons.”
Benitez noted that, with numerous flavor options in e-cigarettes, many children don’t realize that nicotine is known to be “as addictive as heroin” and it can change the developing brain, affecting attention, learning and memory.
“Nicotine can worsen stressors already challenging in adolescence, but unlike other adolescent phases, changes to the brain from nicotine may be permanent,” said Benitez.
She shared that modern e-cigarettes can contain up to six times the nicotine concentration of early devices, which puts children at risk of nicotine addiction and other substance addictions.
“Nicotine is brain poison, and I want to know what is this district doing, where are the assemblies, where is the education, where are we in your faces saying we must not do this?” said Benitez.
With a report from her son that he’d seen vaping occur in front of him at school, Benitez stressed that the schools must take proactive steps to address the growing issue. She noted that she had offered to help pay in the past for vaping detectors, a growing trend in schools that are installed to catch students when they engage in it.
Board Clerk Dr. Michele Kipke called vaping a key issue.
“I’d like to make sure we add this to our discussion as an agenda item because it is very important,” said Kipke.