Vaping concerns in St Ann schools

OCHO RIOS, St Ann — Electronic cigarettes have become so popular within the population of one St Ann school that an entrepreneurially minded student began selling vape pens to peers.

“The children are doing it [vaping] without any care at all, and the trend continues,” said Hillary Hickling, guidance counsellor at a high school in the parish where she said the pens are being sold.

“This trend is getting out of control and something needs to be done,” she stressed.

Hickling was among participants at Tuesday’s latest anti-vaping campaign staged by the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA), at the St Ann Parish Library.

Another startling trend noted by another participant at the event is that vape use is more prevalent among girls, who say they like the taste, and they tend to share it within their circle of friends.

That is just the type of behaviour the NCDA is hoping its campaign will curb. Expected to last between six months and a year, it was rolled out in Westmoreland on May 29. St James is also among the list of parishes where the campaign will be in effect. The strategy is to target institutions with high reports of drug abuse. Training sessions are provided for teachers and peer counsellors to ensure they are equipped to help students who may be abusing drugs and detect other social issues they may be battling.

Substance abuse officer in St Ann, Nordia Henry has vowed that she will be working relentlessly with schools in the parish to end what she described as the “vaping phenomenon”.

“We can’t afford to lose our children; we have to fight for them. I will be going into the schools so all I’m asking of the teachers is to just make some time for us,” she appealed.

Peer counsellors at Ferncourt High school are expected to start training in early July.

“Our parents will also be included because if the parents are not involved to push the initiative at home, it makes no sense,” Henry explained.

The thrust has received support from entities such as the Ministry of Education and the Restorative Justice Unit of the Ministry of Justice.

“Right now we are in a crisis, and without this type of campaign I don’t see it getting any better,” said safety and security officer at the Ministry of Education’s Region Three division, Nina Dixon.

She warned that the problem is not confined to teenagers.

“When I go to the guidance counsellors’ office they show me several vape pens that they would have taken from children — even in primary schools. This is scary because we still don’t know enough about vapes and [yet] schoolchildren in their uniforms have access,” said a concerned Dixon.

According to the 2017 Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey, 15 per cent of Jamaicans aged 15 years and older currently use tobacco products. In addition, a significant number of Jamaican students are using tobacco and electronic cigarettes.

The latest data showed that 11.1 per cent of boys and 10.9 per cent of girls smoke cigarettes, while 13.7 per cent of boys and 9.7 per cent of girls use electronic cigarettes.

Based on a rapid assessment recently done by the NCDA, about seven per cent of 193 respondents in St Ann said they vape.

Uncomfortable with these numbers, the NCDA’s Henry noted that the glamorously marketed devices come in more than 7,000 different flavours, and their colourful packaging makes them attractive to children.

“Contrary to what was marketed, these things are not safe. All of the chemicals in a vape is not good. The nicotine is quite addictive so when they get hooked it is hard for them to be rehabilitated — hence we are focusing on putting our young people on the right path,” Henry said.

Chemicals being ingested are said to include nicotine, nickel, lead, benzene, and propylene oxide, among others.

In Westmoreland, where the NCDA campaign was first launched, the battle continues.

“I have like six to eight individuals that I’m seeing for substance abuse counselling. But the vaping is a trend and there is no void to say it is only in high school or primary schools, it is just trending,” said the parish’s substance abuse officer, Orain Ruddock.

He is concerned that children appear unaware of the danger.

“I’ve asked students before why they use it and they laugh and say it is breath mint and it is not going to do anything to them. So, right there we see that they have no intention to stop. We have to be the ones to speak up until we are at a place to protect our children from these dangerous things,” he said.