Two bathrooms on Palo Alto High School's campus have earned a new reputation: They're the "vape bathrooms," known as hot spots for students using electronic cigarettes during school hours.
Administrators and student leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about the level of on-campus vaping, which is happening in bathrooms, on the quad, in parking lots and sometimes, even, in class. While e-cigarette use is more common at the district's two high schools, students say it's trickling down into the middle schools as well.
"It's a constant situation," said Paly junior site-council representative Ben Gordon. "Probably you could find a kid at any time on campus vaping. It's really serious on campus and even more serious off campus."
At Paly, Gordon and student body president Vivian Feng are working with Principal Adam Paulson to address the issue through education, including sponsoring a community town hall later this month. Meanwhile, the administration has installed more cameras on campus and has staff more frequently patrolling known vaping spots, Paulson wrote in a message to families in late September.
"This is a challenge that will require efforts from the school, as well as parents and students, in order to successfully shift the culture of vaping both on campus and in students' lives away from Paly," Paulson wrote. Paulson did not grant an interview for this story.
Schools across the country are grappling with teenage e-cigarette use, to the point that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared last month that it has reached "an epidemic proportion": more than 2 million middle and high school students were regular users of e-cigarettes last year. E-cigarette use skyrocketed between 2011 to 2017, going from 1.5 percent to 11.7 percent among high school students and from 0.6 percent to 3.3 percent among middle school students, according to the FDA.
The FDA told the companies that make some of the most popular devices -- including Juul, co-founded by two Stanford University graduate students -- that they had 60 days to prove they can keep the products away from minors. Federal law prohibits selling e-cigarettes to anyone under 18. Juul is meant for adult smokers and requires customers to be 21 years or older to purchase products online, but the company has faced sharp criticism for targeting teenagers, particularly through the marketing of flavors like mango and mint.
E-cigarettes, which were created as an alternative for adult smokers, use a liquid that may contain nicotine, as well as flavorings, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and other ingredients, according to the FDA. The liquid is heated to create an aerosol that the user inhales. Like second-hand smoke, bystanders can inhale the aerosol when it's exhaled into the air.
E-cigarette aerosol generally contains fewer toxic chemicals than cigarettes, but it is not harmless. One Juul cartridge, for example, contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes and lasts for about 200 puffs, depending on individual use, the company estimates. One cartridge is equivalent to 20 cigarettes, according to a UCSF professor quoted in a CNN article.
Some e-cigarettes look like cigarettes and pens while others, like Juul, resemble USB flash drives.
The majority of Paly and Gunn students don't regularly use electronic cigarettes, though use is up from last year, according to the 2017-18 California Healthy Kids Survey. Eighty-eight percent of Paly freshmen and 83 percent of juniors said they have never used e-cigarettes or another vaping device. At Gunn, 94 percent of freshmen and 82 percent of juniors reported the same.
Low percentages of students said they had vaped in the prior month, according to the 2017-18 survey: 7 percent of freshmen and 9 percent of juniors at Paly, and at Gunn, 3 percent of freshman and 10 percent of juniors. Even fewer students had smoked cigarettes in the last 30 days.
Districtwide, 2 percent of seventh-graders reported ever smoking e-cigarettes. In response to requests from middle school parents, the Palo Alto Police Department's school resource officer gave presentations on vaping last spring. The Palo Alto Council of PTAs plans to discuss data and parent education related to vaping at its executive board meeting next week.
Student vaper: 'You can't stop it'
A 17-year-old Gunn High School senior who regularly vapes spoke with the Weekly on the condition of anonymity. He believes vaping is a safer alternative to cigarettes and other drugs and is well aware of the addictive nature of nicotine. He wants to become a psychologist and understands the negative impact nicotine and other drugs have on the developing teenage brain.
This doesn't prevent him from vaping on a daily basis.
"Nicotine -- I know it's bad for you, but it's better than smoking the same pack of cigarettes and having tar in my lungs. I'd rather juul and get my buzz," he said. "It's like cigarettes except it doesn't smell ... and you don't feel as guilty doing it."
He first tried an e-cigarette at the beginning of his sophomore year. His friend had a Suorin Drop, a small, pod-shaped device. He started vaping more regularly his junior year, when he purchased his own Juul.
Purchasing e-cigarettes, even as a minor, is not difficult, he said. Students use fake IDs, ask older students to buy a device for them or use their parents information to purchase a device online, like he did. (A Gunn senior got in trouble for selling Juul pods to underclassmen last year, he said.) He warned against buying devices on websites like eBay or Craigslist, which are known for peddling fake pods that can be dangerous, he said.
He vapes at school, in the bathroom, and in the car with friends. He likes the social aspect of it, but there's no peer pressure to do it, he said. He doesn't believe vaping is addictive, though every time he uses a Juul he sees a warning message printed on the device in big, black letters: "WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical."
The Gunn senior cuts down his use each year for sports season without any withdrawal symptoms, he said. Feng, however, said a close friend at Paly tried to stop vaping during an intense period of studying together, became nauseous and quickly gave in to her cravings.
The Gunn senior admitted: "If I was juuling since I was 12 and doing it every day, that may be an issue for me."
He's seen the Gunn administration crack down on e-cigarette use somewhat, including by checking bathrooms, but doesn't believe it's been effective.
"They're doing the best they can," he said. "We're high schoolers. We're not stupid. We're smart. We're going to hide (it). You can't stop it."
Gunn Principal Kathie Laurence did not respond to a request for comment.
At Paly, e-cigarettes have created a social divide between students who vape and those who think it's "unacceptable," Feng said. For those who openly use e-cigarettes, it's a form of social status -- students post pictures and videos of themselves smoking on and off campus on social media -- and don't see it as a big deal, Gordon said.
Part of the culture is "we're not smoking cigarettes, so it can't be that bad," he said.
On the other side are students, particularly underclassmen, who feel uncomfortable going to the bathroom when students are vaping there, and those who are alarmed about the potential long-term health impacts of e-cigarettes but don't feel comfortable confronting their peers about it.
The students believe raising awareness -- including by having student-leaders speak out, providing feedback to the administration (including directly from students who vape), posting educational signs on campus and having assemblies -- will start to bridge that divide and be more impactful than discipline. They see this as a long-term problem for Paly that won't be solved this year or with a one-off school assembly. Vaping is this generation's cigarette epidemic, Feng said.
"You just need to change the idea of what it does to you," she said.