BROOKSVILLE — Maleaha Williams looked over the crowd of ninth- and tenth-graders in the Hernando High School auditorium and swallowed the anxiety creeping into her voice. Being on stage, alone at the microphone, jangled her nerves a little, but the decision to get up there in the first place had been easy: She thought she could save some lives.
Williams, a Hernando High senior, had seen a growing number of her peers taking pulls from e-cigarettes and vaporizers as they walked through the hallways or congregated in bathrooms. It disturbed her, she said, and she'd been trying for months to figure out a way to get people to listen, finally succeeding when she pitched a presentation to an assistant principal. Now, on a late April morning, she cut to the chase.
"I'm not sure how you guys could lie to yourselves and say, 'Nothing is going to happen to me,'" she told the audience.
The e-cigarette boom of recent years has posed quandaries for officials ranging from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to local school boards.
The devices, meant to convert a nicotine liquid into vapor, caught on in part as a way to quit cigarette smoking. Research — including a New England Journal of Medicine study published this year — has shown that they may be far more effective than methods like nicotine gum or patches. But they've also become hugely popular among teenagers, who have latched onto vaping's fruity flavors and Instagrammable aesthetics, despite the fact that it's illegal for people under 18 to possess e-cigarettes.
More than 20 percent of high school students nationwide vaped in 2018, according to an FDA report, prompting efforts to ramp up regulations. And in Hernando County schools, vaping has gone from "nothing two years ago," as supervisor of student services Jill Kolasa told the Tampa Bay Times in March, to a cause for disciplinary action for 174 students in 2018. Finding a way to halt the trend's climb has become a top priority for the School Board and other district officials.
But several factors make it a complicated effort. The devices' subtle designs and the vapor's lack of scent embolden students to vape during school. The long-term effects of vaping haven't been established. And experts have written that public service announcements don't work for vaping, because, unlike with cigarettes, kids often don't see vaping as harmful.
Williams's assembly could point to peer-to-peer advocacy as one path forward for the district. The students were restless at times during the assembly, with pockets of chatter during speeches from adults who took the stage after Williams. At one point, the assembly shifted to a video featuring dramatic reenactments of pale, sweating teens in nicotine withdrawal, as well as testimonials from young people who said they're grossed-out by the idea of vaping. When one young woman on screen said she had a headache because "I've been ripping the Juul this morning," a swell of laughter rose from the crowd.
But it was different when Williams, one of their peers, spoke to them.
The teenagers sat in silence as she talked about how her father's substance abuse problems cost him his kindness, his parental rights and eventually his life. She talked about her sister, who wound up hospitalized after using a vape that she said doctors later told her was laced with arsenic. She got choked up, pausing for a minute, and people in the audience broke their silence to shout encouragements: "It's OK!" Then she pushed forward.
J.R. Hutchinson, a former Hernando County Sheriff's captain who at one point oversaw the district's school resource officers, watched the presentation and later said that in his experience, it's one of the rare ways to get kids to think about the possible harm of substances.
"That's the only way you're going to convince kids," said Hutchinson, who also has worked with the anti-drug Hernando Community Coalition. "Teenagers are going to experiment. Unfortunately, that experimentation turns into addictions. Adults can tell them all day long that things are wrong or against the law," but it's not as effective as giving them stories from their peers.
Research seems to back this idea to an extent: A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine found that peer education programs about tobacco use can work given "the right environment and motivated peer educators."
Robert Kordon, a seventh-grader at Challenger K-8 who represents the district on the statewide youth advocacy board for Students Working Against Tobacco, agreed that talking about personal experience with addiction or substance-related illnesses seems effective. He also spoke during the presentation, calling out vape manufacturers for using bright or cartoonish marketing to take advantage of young people, a la Camel cigarettes' Joe Camel campaigns of the 1990s. Experts have suggested that painting abstinence from vaping as anti-corporate rebellion would successfully play into teens' desire for independence.
Kordon and Williams both said they want to shift the perception of vaping to being unappealing, even unsanitary — a tactic Williams said she's seen most often on social media.
"Nobody likes being around vape, being around smoke," Kordon said. "We walk by it and think, 'Gross.'"
Next year, Students Working Against Tobacco will expand to several more schools in Hernando County, said Jennifer Bliska, the program's coordinator. In March, Kolasa said students as young as fifth grade will get increased education on vaping, and she pointed out that very few students who got in trouble for vaping last year repeated their offenses.
At the end of her presentation, Williams urged students to avoid vaping altogether or to stop before they're entangled by dependency.
"Drug abusers don't become drug abusers overnight," she said. "Although addiction is not a choice, starting is."
The moment of the assembly that most embodied the hazy task of halting the youth vaping phenomenon, though, may have come before Williams ever spoke. As the students settled into the auditorium, the school's principal announced they were about to see an anti-vaping presentation. Kids in the crowd hooted and cheered at the news, but whether they were being sarcastic or sincere was hard to tell.
Contact Jack Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JackHEvans.