Student discussions aim to combat vaping culture

Kira Sterling and Tara Kapoor

Stanford professor Bonnie Halpern-Felsher addresses Palo Alto High School freshmen about the dangers associated with vaping at an assembly Tuesday in the Performing Arts Center. Halpern-Felsher said that though e-cigarettes may seem less harmful than traditional cigarettes, that is not a distinction that should be relevant to students, most of whom would not be cigarette users regardless. “It’s not a comparison between e-cigarettes and cigarettes,” Halpern-Felsher said. “It’s a comparison between e-cigarettes and healthy air. And that’s the important thing.” Photo: Kira Sterling

Walk into any bathroom on Palo Alto High School campus and you might see four pairs of shoes clustered together in the largest stall or catch a whiff of what smells like cotton candy. Even more brazen students may sometimes be spotted blowing puffs of vapor in front of the mirror without bothering to hide their Juuls.

This scene has become all-too-common in recent years, and many students have grown accustomed to seeing their peers openly vaping. However, student leaders and adults are aiming to change the culture of normativity surrounding student use of vape products. A fishbowl discussion at a freshman assembly Tuesday took a step towards this goal, combining student and adult insight to address the issue of youth vaping.

The event brought together Stanford professor Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, Paly senior Christian Carter and Associated Student Body President Pooja Akella, who all shared ideas on ways to drive positive change at school with regard to student use of e-cigarettes. The discussion, moderated by senior Ben Gordon, who is Paly’s Student Board Representative, aimed to educate over 500 freshmen on the harm that vaping can cause in a more student-centric manner than a similar (but lecture-style) event that took place at Gunn. Presenters urged students to step up and make a change when their own friends are vaping.

Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist and pediatric researcher, first set out to dispel misconceptions around what the effects of vaping actually are. She warned that despite common beliefs that vapes only contain water vapor and essential oils, most vaping products on the market also contain substantial amounts of nicotine, other volatile organic chemicals and even plastic or metal particles, all of which cause problems for fragile lung tissue.

“You all would tell me cigarettes are disgusting,” Halpern-Felsher said. “These things [vaping products] aren’t that different from cigarettes, and they’re not necessarily less harmful than cigarettes.”

The discussion frequently turned to the theme of peer pressure, and how students can contribute to reducing acceptance around youth vaping. Akella recommended beginning with small acts to demonstrate an unwillingness to accept vaping.

“If you hear other people who’ve been talking about it, you don’t even need to say anything, your actions are often more than what you say,” Akella said. “Not laughing along or not nodding and encouraging them, that’s almost a really good way to show that you’re not necessarily in favor of it.”

Gordon underscored the power of adults on campus to help students, and said he hopes students feel comfortable reaching out for help from Paly administration.

“I think that there’s kind of a general norm on campus that the Paly administration is, you know, against vaping,” Gordon said. “That they’re kind of there to punish you and they’re there to hurt you and you better not come forward or we’re going to bust you again. I think it’s absolutely the opposite. … They really are there to support you.” 

Meanwhile, Halpern-Felsher promoted other ways for students who are using to get help when they don’t know where else to turn for assistance. She emphasized that by law, minors over age 12 in California have the right to get help for substance abuse without necessarily informing their parents.

“As a parent, I would love to know what my kids are suffering from,” Halpern-Felsher said. “But if you cannot reach out to your parents, or you’re afraid to, there are ways to get help, and then we do not have to report.”

Halpern-Felsher went on to describe what addiction can look like, cautioning that symptoms of addiction can appear in a variety of forms, ranging from dizziness to nausea to headaches and stomachaches.

“Reach out if you find that you’re addicted or you’re not sure or you’re feeling sick,” Halpern-Felsher said. “If you’re feeling that way, come reach out and get some help because there is help for you, and I don’t want you to feel like you’re alone.”

Ultimately, the panel members said they wanted to get the conversation started at Paly that vaping isn’t cool.

“We’re not going to tolerate it on this campus,” Gordon said. “It’s not who we are.”