When I first started teaching, the big concern was around students smoking. This has now been overtaken by students vaping – and how staff can prevent this from happening.
Even though it’s been around for a few years, there remains a lack of clarity on the effects of vaping, why students do it and the laws on it, which makes it hard for schools and teachers to know exactly what they should be doing about the issue.
Out of sight, sometimes
One initial problem with vaping is that it can be very hard to catch students doing it. There are some designed to smell like the air fresheners in the toilets, and there are even some designed to look like a memory stick, or that don’t have any odour or even smoke.
There’s even a challenge I saw on YouTube in which students dare each other to vape behind a teacher's back and get a photo of it and post it on social media.
That students are engaging in vaping in schools is beyond doubt – but the impacts are less clear.
I wonder how many teachers have heard: “It’s not as bad as smoking, Miss.” Or had students state: “I only smoke to help with my anxiety.”
It seems that students feel that vaping encourages deep breathing, which helps with their nerves. Other students have stated that it relaxes their muscles.
I was never sure how to answer such comments, as what I really want to say is: “But it's new and no one knows the real effect it has on your body.”
Indeed, the research is only really just getting started in looking at the long-term impact of vaping: we can't automatically use the damage-to-health card as we do with smoking.
However, while e-cigarettes do not contain tar or carbon monoxide – two of the most harmful elements in tobacco smoke – they do contain some chemicals also found in tobacco smoke, but at much lower levels.
It is also addictive, and there was the recent case in New York of someone who died from a suspected vaping-related respiratory illness.
We should be making these facts clear to students.
What should also be made clear – to students and to staff – is that students under the age of 18 shouldn’t be able to buy vaping products, and it's illegal for someone to buy such products from them or for them.
Reminding students of the facts and the consequences so that they can make an informed decision is key to ensuring vaping is taken seriously and we don’t just turn a blind eye.
And as time goes on, more facts and evidence will no doubt become available. We need to make sure that we are all aware of them so we can deal with this issue as thoroughly as possible.
Ceri Stokes is assistant head (DSL) at Kimbolton School in Cambridgeshire. She tweets @CeriStokes