A child waits outside a Wellington-Harrington neighborhood smoke shop in September. (Photo: Radhika Nagpal)

The percentage of Cambridge middle school students vaping has more than tripled in the past two years, alarming public health officials.

Last year, 11 percent of middle school students reported using e-cigarettes during their lifetime, according to the latest figures from a health department survey of sixth, seventh and eighth graders taken every two years. The prevalence of lifetime use in 2017 was 3.1 percent.

The breakdown of use by grade level showed vaping spiking as kids got older. Last year, 5 percent of sixth graders reported vaping during their lifetime; 11 percent of seventh graders; and 17 percent of eighth graders.

At Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, 33 percent of students reported using e-cigarettes during their lifetime, and 18 percent during the previous 30 days, according to the health department’s disclosed previously 2018 survey results. Those figures also showed a sharp increase; in 2016, it was 20 percent of high school students reporting lifetime e-cigarette use, and 5 percent said they had vaped in the previous 30 days.

A display in Cambridge Rindge and Latin School makes a dramatic statement against e-cigarettes in December 2018. (Photo: Quinton Zondervan via Facebook)

“This is now a crisis, an emergency,” Tracy Rose-Tynes, manager of school health services for the Cambridge Public Health Department, told members of the Cambridge Health Alliance subcommittee on public health on Tuesday. The committee oversees the Public Health Department.

School administrators at the kindergarten through eighth grade level earlier “didn’t think [vaping] was a problem,” Rose-Tynes said. “Now they’re seeing it’s a problem.” Public health officials now want to start educating elementary school students about e-cigarettes, she said.

Withdrawal symptoms

Rose-Tynes showed four e-cigarette models to the four committee members to demonstrate their powerful attraction to young people. Pointing to a sleek product from Juul, the most popular e-cigarette maker, she said: “This is a kid’s dream, so techie.” Students can keep it in their sleeve and vape at school without being caught, she said.

Why are kids vaping at school when they can easily walk across the street and escape discipline? Many have become addicted and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they can’t smoke, she said.

Those symptoms include sweating, tremors, nausea, anxiety, headaches, irritability and insomnia, Rose-Tynes said, citing posts on Internet sites.

Suspension policy

She and committee members questioned the high school’s policy of suspending students who use e-cigarettes on school property. “They need help,” Rose-Tynes said. She said she didn’t know whether the same disciplinary rules applied in middle schools.

Rosalie Rippey, spokeswoman for the Cambridge schools, said: “In general, we actively promote restorative approaches in student discipline, and suspension rates in [Cambridge public schools] are very low.”

“Suspensions for illegal substances on school grounds do occur, but any disciplinary action that may be taken is accompanied by extensive discussions with the student and their family, including connecting them with addiction treatment services and other relevant supports,” Rippey said.

The school district does not keep track of the number of suspensions for vaping on school property, she said. The schools work “closely” with the health department “and rely on their expert guidance related to policy, practices and resources in place on our school campuses,” Rippey said.

School officials continue “to be concerned about the rise in e-cigarette use among teens and early adolescents,” she said.

Programs and curricula

Rose-Tynes said certain kids are especially vulnerable to getting hooked on vaping. They include students whose parents smoke cigarettes, girls, children with “mental health issues,” those not doing well in school and students who like to consume “Monster drinks,” a type of energy beverage.

“We want to get them help,” Rose-Tynes said. A psychologist is available in the high school’s Teen Health clinic, she said. Rippey also cited the high school clinic and said public health nurses are “directly available” to students in the lower grades.

Rose-Tynes and other public health staff have presented information on vaping to Cambridge public school administrators, the CRLS Parent Council, the Amigos School Parent Council, all teachers at the high school, school nurses and dental hygienists, and public health employees. A session for the public was held at Lesley University last year.

Programs are scheduled this month at parent council meetings at the Tobin School and Putnam Avenue Upper School and in ninth and 10th grade health classes.

Rippey said material on cigarette smoking and vaping is part of the curriculum in mandatory health classes in middle school, and all ninth graders attend workshops offered by the health department.

“Additionally, we have increased our peer education and parent education efforts, as awareness of these issues has grown,” she said.