Pinellas schools have a clinic for kids who get busted for smoking. Enrollment is up 200 percent

Published March 21 2018

Back in the day, students were caught with cigars, cigarettes, Black & Milds, Swisher Sweets, El Producto, dutchies, Phillies, White Owls, gars and blunt wraps.

Iris Merryweather rattles off the list to show that she keeps up with the latest, most popular tobacco trends among middle and high school students. Lately, she’s had to adopt a whole new vocabulary.

Pinellas County students as young as 12 are finding themselves in record numbers in Merryweather’s tobacco clinic, busted for e-cigarettes or vapes.

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Kids call them "Phix," "Juul" or "Mod." Merryweather calls them vape circuitry. Resembling a flash drive that can fit in the palm of a hand, students often discreetly use them in class, "lunging" or pulling the smoke into their lungs and sucking any odorless "ghost vapor" that comes out of their mouths back in.

"This is an always evolving program," Merryweather said. "Anything that (is) new, I research it so I can talk to the kids about it. I have to be able to use the language that they use."

When students get caught for the first time, schools can give them the option of serving a three-day suspension or enrolling in a two-night tobacco clinic at Clearwater High run by educators from the school district and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

But those who are caught this month and opt to attend the clinic may have to wait. Although the school district added a second classroom in October to double the amount of students accommodated to 40 a month, classes are backlogged until May.

Enrollment has increased 203 percent so far this year, from 80 kids in 2016-17, to 243 this school year, as of March. The number of students caught with e-cigarettes is five times what it was just last year. Referrals for e-cigarettes now make up 90 percent of the tobacco offenses, up from 60 percent last school year.

To accommodate the sudden surge, school district officials are in search of a south county location to open a second tobacco clinic site in August.

"It’s money well-spent," said Donna Sicilian, the district’s executive director of student services. "These kids need to know what the facts are."

Merryweather, a Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital community educator who has been running tobacco clinics since they began in 1995, says many students don’t realize that one pod of nicotine found in a vape is equal to a pack of cigarettes. Many students say they use two to three pods a day, taking hundreds of puffs a day.

She says each puff takes in chemicals like nitrosamine, benzyne and acetone — damaging substances that in high quantities are found in paint stripper and bug killer.

"One of the questions that’s asked is are they experiencing any mouth pain or tenderness, throat pain, sick to their stomach, rapid heartbeat," she said. "Many times, they’re answering yes."

Students at the clinics often open up about how they get their hands on vapes, which are legal only for those 18 and older. She says kids get cash from their family members and buy prepaid Visa gift cards, then go online and purchase products.

Many kids often share vapes to perform tricks, following how-to videos on YouTube. They watch tutorials on how to blow vapor rings or produce billows of vapor, called "clouding."

But after a while, Merryweather says students become addicted. She points to statistics that say those who vape regularly are two times more likely to move on to cigarettes.

Data was not readily available on how many students were caught with tobacco again after going to the district’s clinic.

Just like cigarettes in past decades, Merryweather says vapes are glamorized. She’s not sure what’s causing the sudden rise, but says school staff have been on the lookout for these often inconspicuous devices.

Nurses from the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County often forward websites of new nicotine products and news articles about from CNN and NPR to school resource officers and school staff to keep them in the loop.

"Must be new nicotine delivery system day!" one nurse wrote in an email in December. "Here is another product to be aware of."

Students who enroll in the clinic are given a pre-test and post-test. Merryweather said about 75 percent say they’ve learned something positive.

"The only thing I can do is educate," she said. "I can accept them where they are. I do not judge. I don’t say, ‘What are you doing?’ I just give information in a caring manner."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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