McKinley Elementary school counselor Caitlin Hraban has a succinct explanation for why her school provides education about vaping for students.
“They’re the target,” she said after a Billings Clinic presentation about vaping at the school.
Educators, spurred by widespread vaping use among older students and a conviction that vaping companies are following in the footsteps of Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, are trying to reach students before someone offers them a puff of cotton candy — one of thousands of candy-type flavors that many say target kids.
School resource officers wrote about 70 tickets for mostly vaping-related offenses last school year. Elementary citations for vaping are rare, but there were a handful last year.
"I hate to put it on elementary schools, but I almost wonder if we should be having them talk about it," said Robert Miller, an officer at Ben Steele and Will James Middle Schools.
Sandstone Elementary hosted a presentation about vaping from RiverStone Health last year, and will do so again this fall.
"These kiddos, at this age, are walking through the convenience stores and are attracted to all of that," Sandstone health teacher Todd Bertsch said.
He and Hraban said that some kids recognize e-cigarette devices. Other educators highlighted that if older siblings start using, then younger siblings are likely to be exposed to vaping products.
Vaping companies also have a tool at their disposal that the Menthol Moose never had – social media.
Anti-tobacco campaigns have blasted companies large and small for online advertising practices. A study published in Tobacco Control, a peer-reviewed medical journal, concluded that Juul got a leg up on its competitors in part by investing heavily in social media advertising instead of more traditional outlets like television.
"Concerns have been voiced regarding the youth of the men and women portrayed in Juul’s advertising in combination with the product design," the study says when discussing social media use. "Because the audiences of these platforms disproportionately represent youth and young adults, Juul’s marketing and promotion on social media may increase the appeal, experimentation, initiation and use of Juul among that population."
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Altria — formerly PhilipMorris — bought a 35% stake in Juul in 2018, once the company already ruled the e-cigarette market.
According to the Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco use group, "by 2016, nearly 4 out of 5 middle and high school students, or more than 20 million youth, saw at least one e-cigarette advertisement."
It can be hard for young kids to wrap their heads around the concept of health risks.
“At a young age, it’s hard to truly understand the health impacts, and have a true understanding like adults,” Hraban said. “My gut feeling is that most of them can tell you that smoking and vaping is not healthy for you, but whether or not that’s something that they truly feel … that’s maybe not necessarily there yet.”
However, aggressive anti-smoking campaigns have long been credited with helping make inroads against youth tobacco use. For example, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids still hosts an annual Kick Butts Day, which 11 schools around Montana participate in.
Last school year, the group pivoted to focusing on Juul.
Bertsch estimated the number of elementary students that view vaping as a health risk at about 20%.
Educators also acknowledged that combating vaping isn't just about facts, but also about preparing kids to deal with peer pressure.
"Every single class said the same thing, because they think it's cool, or because their friends are doing it, or peer pressure," Miller said.
That's why some schools aren't just relying on teachers or healthcare experts to educate about vaping; they're turning to students themselves.
Up next: Schools recognize that kids can be the best allies in fight against vaping