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Australia’s vaping epidemic: teachers need more support, expert says

High Schoolers who vape are more likely to miss out on classes, delay their learning and become more aggressive, creating heavier workloads for teachers, a new study has confirmed.

Researchers from Griffith University spoke with staff and students from nearly 400 schools nationwide  identifying an increase in students' missed school days and expulsions due to vaping.

Dr Murooj Yousef, a research fellow at Blurred Minds - a vaping and drugs education initiative for Australian high schools, says relying on punitive measures to stop harmful behaviors is "insufficient."

"Teachers need resources that display the research that shows, for example, vaping, lung injuries, cardiovascular diseases, different infections, seizures, nicotine, toxicity and burns, to show students that this product is not any healthy idea or better," she said.

Dr Yousef joined Education Review to discuss new strategies to tackle school vaping.

To what extent is vaping normalised in Australian schools today?

In the past few years, schools have tackled marijuana and other drugs, but vaping just brought back nicotine addiction.

Schools are all struggling with that issue, and vaping differs from traditional cigarettes.

We know from the data that teenage vape users are increasing.

In 2017, a national study showed that about 14 per cent of youth, sorry, had been using e-cigarettes and vapes. Last year a similar study showed that the number rose to 27 per cent.

We're talking about one in three students who have tried vaping before, which is a number that is concerning specifically for schools and parents who need to educate their teens on this substance.

How important is it for schools to address this vaping issue?

Schools need to talk about vaping before it becomes a habit, as you don't want teachers to have to deal with a cohort of addicted individuals.

We already hear from schools that this issue is starting to come up where students can't sit still through a 45-minute or 30-minute session in the classroom because they need the hit of nicotine.

If they need their hit, they will try to get excused and go to the bathroom or somewhere else to quickly get that hit off nicotine before returning to class.

We also have to acknowledge that vaping, like smoking and alcohol consumption, brings in many other social issues that schools would like to prevent and not get into.

For example, if students don't get that nicotine hit, they can become aggressive, and you'll start seeing more fights, violence, and bullying at school.

How does vaping impact teachers' and schools' ability to educate students?

Vaping affects students' attention throughout their classroom and hurts the neurodevelopment of adolescence.

We know that if a student is to use nicotine products, including vaping and e-cigarettes, effects on their neurodevelopment and immune system is evident. 

They are more likely to get sick and lose more school hours and school days because of this addiction or this behaviour.

When several students are asking to be excused or losing school days consecutively throughout the school year, teachers have to follow up with those students and ensure they're up to date with the content.

They will then spend less time with the remaining cohort if they don't want that kid to fall behind, which creates extra work for the teachers.

What challenges do teachers and schools face when addressing students' vaping?

One of the challenges is around the myth that vapes are healthier, safer, or harmless compared to traditional smoking. 

We need to tackle the myth that it's a harmless, more eco-friendly, or healthier product because it's not. 

And we know that teachers would like to be more proactive about vaping rather than waiting for students to become addicted. 

Teachers have been asking for evidence-based and practical resources that are engaging.

With our resources at the Blurred Minds initiative we display the research and the evidence base that shows, for example, vaping, lung injuries, cardiovascular diseases, different infections, seizures, nicotine, toxicity and burns. 

We take the student through these different pieces of evidence to showcase that this product is not any healthy idea or better.

They need to understand that just because it smells or tastes better and is packaged in a nicely coloured device does not make it a safe option.

What are some strategies schools and teachers can use to address vaping?

There are a few things that schools can do. 

One of them is having a vape-free policy and ensuring it is communicated clearly to parents and teachers.

The policy should also state the consequences that come along with a student caught vaping.

We know a lot of schools utilise punitive measures like suspensions, expulsions, exclusions, and detentions. 

Communicating that specifically to students and parents helps. 

But relying only on punitive measures is not enough. 

In the long term, it can create more issues because students miss out on school days and content that the rest of the cohort is doing. 

We tell schools to move away from that approach and be more proactive, specifically through education.

We need to empower teachers with relevant resources to discuss and educate students about vaping.

Practical resources don't just explain the issue but give teachers the tools and interactive bits that engage students in understanding the dangers of vaping. 

And then parents can help too. 

Schools need to involve the parents to ensure students are supported at school and home with the relevant information they need, the tools they might need to stay away from the product or if they're addicted to seek help and try to quit.

What are some practical ideas teachers can use to educate students about vaping?

Teachers might want to try gamification.

Gamification uses video games and gamified elements while educating students about a specific issue.

So with vapes, we created a game called the Debate Investigator Game, and it's available for free for any school on our website.

It can help teachers start the conversation fun way; rather than preaching to students about why vaping is bad.

The game takes about 10 to 15 minutes to complete and helps students to raise questions about vapes.

Why does Big Tobacco develop this product, how is it marketed, and how is it targeting our age group?

The game can help them be more critical of the industry and the product and make them think twice before vaping.

Teachers and schools already have a lot on their plates; what can the governments do to help?

We know that schools can only do much.

The government can help with stricter regulations regarding youth vaping and be more stringent on importing these products.

They also need to make these products less available to this specific age group because we know they were not intended for them initially.

The government can also support schools by making educational resources around vaping available freely and ensuring they are used across the state and independent schools nationwide.

There is a need for legislation, communication campaigns and more education. 

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