By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on February 7, 2020
More than 60 parents, children and community members gathered at First Flight Middle School on Feb. 5 to listen to a powerful message on the dangers of teen vaping delivered by High Point, N.C.’s Luka Kinard, who shared his own story of nicotine addiction and the spiraling effects e-cigarettes had on his early years in high school.
Connecting easily with students in the audience, the 16-year-old Kinard talked candidly during the “Escape the Vape” event about the prevalence of vaping among the local student population and about constructive ways to offer support to those who may be struggling to quit. The event, held this week at each of the county’s middle schools, comes as the Centers for Disease Control reported last month that vaping had claimed a total of 60 lives nationwide and its use among young people continues to surge at epidemic levels.
Two First Flight High School students, during the event’s question and answer period, explained to Kinard the extent of the problem locally. “It’s a huge problem at the high school,” one student asserted, noting that groups of students congregate in the school’s bathroom and pass around Juuls and other vaping devices, making it difficult to even use the restroom.
“You can’t even get through,” he noted. Another student echoed those sentiments, adding, “You walk in the bathroom and there are seven girls in one stall [vaping]…it’s a sight to see.”
When questioned by a member of the audience about the extent of the problem, First Flight Middle School Principal Diane Childress acknowledged that based on her observations, “I would say that [vaping] is an epidemic at the high school.” Whether it’s reached that level at the middle school, she said, is debatable depending on who you talk with.
The punishment for vaping, she said, is a three-day suspension. “We are trying to send the message that it is not OK to do it here,” Childress told the crowd, adding that it’s happening outside of school as well. “We’ve got to educate…it’s not something the school can handle alone.”
During a recent school safety forum, Dare County Schools Superintendent John Farrelly announced the launch of a vape detector pilot program at First Flight High School. The detectors, funded through a $25,000 grant, would be installed in the school’s restrooms and send a signal that alerts administrators if vaping is detected.
“It’s worth trying,” Farrelly explained during the forum. “The problem is…you might have ten or twelve kids that might go in a restroom. And trying to be the detective to find out who is vaping and who is not can sometimes be an arduous task, but we are going to try.”
For his part, Kinard, joined by his mother, Kelly Kinard, told the crowd about his long struggle with vaping and how he went from being a Boy Scout, straight A student and athlete to going through four Juul pods a day, exhibiting destructive behavior and selling personal items and stealing to pay for his $150-a-week nicotine addiction. He said his only focus was on “how many hits I was going to get in between classes…every single moment of the day was a way to get a hit.”
During the event – sponsored by Dare County’s Department of Health & Human Services, Saving Lives and Breaking Through task forces and Albemarle Regional Health Services – Kinard shared how his nicotine addiction eventually caused him to have a seizure and led his parents to admit him to a 39-day in-patient substance abuse program.
Kelly Kinard told parents in the audience that the best piece of advice she had was to set a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to vaping.
“If cigarettes are a gateway drug, Juuling is the expressway,” she noted. The older Kinard said she was able to work with her insurance agency after her son’s seizure to get him into the in-patient treatment center in California — the closest facility that would treat his nicotine addiction.
“I want people to understand that this is a new situation, it’s not the same as kids being caught with cigarettes,” she noted, adding that her son was “acting like any other drug addict.”
According to Truth Initiative, a non-profit anti-tobacco organization, one Juul pod has as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes.
“The only thing that should go in your body is oxygen, water and food,” the young Kinard impressed upon the audience, reporting that he has been substance-free for 16 months. “I know [vaping] may seem fun, that everyone is doing it and there are no consequences. But there are.”
He urged students to seek help if they are facing addiction, and to offer support to those who are. “You are never going to succeed in fixing someone,” he acknowledged. “But you can offer constant encouragement.” To that end, he encouraged school districts to form support groups for students before and after school to address addiction to nicotine and other substances.
But the most important message he had for the audience was to not succumb to peer pressure when it comes to vaping: “Remember that the coolest person in the world is yourself,” he said. “Just be yourself. Set your own boundaries and if people don’t respect them, you don’t have to be around them.”