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Punishing Rebellious Students For Vaping Will Just Hurt At-Risk Teens


Gone are the days of asking an older kid to buy you a pack of cigarettes. Now, any teen will inform you that Juuling is the new craze. Much more subtle (and suspected to be a bit safer, too), Juuls are one of the most popular brands of vaping devices. They look like USB drives, and have aided adult smokers in quitting. Now, busybodies are determined to make sure the boys and girls don’t get hooked on drugs, including this safer form of partaking.

A school district in Fairbury, Nebraska, recently decided to institute a policy that mandates nicotine-testing kids at random (the district has already had a drug-testing policy in place for two years, so this is an addition to the current system). Students in grades seven through 12 will now be forced to undergo testing if they want to remain active in extracurricular activities. The consequences scale up in severity depending on the number of infractions. Per The Washington Post:

First-time offenders are required to complete mandatory educational seminars and are suspended from school activities for 10 days. The consequences escalate from there: After their third offense, students are disqualified from participating in extracurricular activities for a whole year.

How is this good for students who are susceptible to drug or nicotine use? Aren’t those precisely the kids you want to keep involved in extracurricular activities, so they have other influences than under-the-bleachers, John Bender-type burnouts who might, at some point, shift from vaping to harder drugs?

Kids who are tempted by rebelliousness often aren’t lost causes, but people who are searching to figure out who they are and what they like. They need a diversity of influences, and their curiosity won’t be sated by lecturing them or treating them like children who ought to be controlled and reprimanded.

I was one of those toying-with-delinquency students, as a teenager. I was tempted by the fun world of drugs and rebelliousness, sometimes choosing to partake, other times choosing to abstain. What kept me from going off the rails was that I was split between several different worlds: in high school, I could quietly experiment with substances to my little heart’s content, but I still had to contend with (and compete against) the sometimes-snooty Model UN kids who, like it or not, weren’t killing brain cells like I was with weed. I didn’t want to jeopardize my debate skills or ability to compete with them for spots in selective MUN conferences, which gave me a reason to stay on course.

Later on in high school, I competed in We The People, an exceptionally nerdy (and intellectually stimulating!) constitutional law competition that required countless long nights of hard prep work. My unit was philosophy-focused, and I did the majority of our speechwriting.

Joints and cigarettes are cool, but I realized that the corny high I got from speechwriting wasn’t so bad, either. This dual drive persisted for years, and maybe still persists today. My appreciation of heady pursuits is something I wouldn’t have developed had I been diverted into the burnout category and told I must remain there.

On the flip side, had I been pigeonholed as just a smart, high-achieving kid, I would probably have sought even more lowly forms of fun, or rebelled harder in college, with more access to substances and less incentive to hide them.

Aside from the practical reasons, though, it doesn’t make sense for the school district to intrude on the autonomy of parents and students. First of all, some of the nicotine-using students are legally adults, so I’m curious as to how these Nebraska nanny staters will handle them. They have every right to buy nicotine and tobacco products and use them as they see fit, although presumably not on school property.

Second, why do these professional bureaucrats feel the need to control what students do socially in their free time? If they believe this will deter drug use, that needs to be well-substantiated before a privacy-limiting policy is put into place. Surely the scourge of underage drinking is even worse and leads to all kinds of major issues—hospital visits to get stomachs pumped, situations where sexual boundaries are not respected—that don’t happen with excessive vaping.

Maybe this newest moral panic isn’t about relative harm, but about wanting to make sure Generation Z doesn’t get hooked on nicotine the way older generations have. After all, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data is pretty clear that the spike in teen tobacco consumption has nothing to do with cigarettes and everything to do with e-cigarettes (or vapes):

About 4.9 million middle and high school students were current users (used in the past 30 days) of some type of tobacco product in 2018, up from 3.6 million in 2017…With the exception of e-cigarettes, no change was found in the use of other tobacco products, including cigarettes.

There were 1.5 million more youth e-cigarette users in 2018 than 2017, and those who were using e-cigarettes were using them more often, as was previously reported in November 2018. Frequent use (more than 20 days in the past 30 days) of e-cigarettes, increased from 20 percent in 2017 to 28 percent in 2018 among current high school e-cigarette users.

That’s a reasonable concern, but it deserves to be complicated a bit. Not all vaping fluids contain nicotine, though many do, and not all e-cigarette use is a “gateway drug” that leads to actual cigarette addiction.

Furthermore, e-cigarettes aren’t just a little bit safer than traditional cigarettes, early research shows they’re a lot safer. A 2015 study from Public Health England found that e-cigs are roughly 95 percent safer than normal smoking, and that makes sense when you consider the absence of tobacco and combustion, plus the elimination of significant amounts of toxins. Still, nicotine exposure can harm developing brains and get kids hooked, so some amount of caution makes sense, and we’re still in the early stages of e-cig research.

Of course, good intentions alone don’t justify state intrusion or school district officials violating the privacy of their students. Why would someone’s social actions pertain to their ability to compete at extracurriculars, anyway? Administrators concerned about the scourge of Juuling should take a step back and consider whether this intervention is more likely to harm or help the students they most need to engage.

At the very least, parents should have a drug and nicotine testing opt-out option. If they determine this to be an appropriate state function, they can self-select into the pool. If they want government employees to stay out of their kids’ bags, pockets, and social lives, they ought to be able to withdraw consent and have that respected.