Nicotine Testing for High Schoolers Is a Drug War-Style Disaster

July 25, 2019

As the so-called epidemic of teen vaping continues to garner sensational headlinesWhy vaping is so dangerous for teens”; “The scary truth about teen vapingtactics from the War on Drugs playbook are increasingly used to punish teens who vape.

Drug testing of adults and teenagers is an insidious aspect of the drug war dragnet. It seeks to control individual behavior and penalize personal choices. It starts with the humiliation of peeing in a cup, often while another person watches. Adults can be fired from jobs or denied welfare, methadone or liberty if they fail a drug test. Teens can lose access to important extracurricular activities, or be suspended or expelled from school.

In the past, students haven’t been tested for nicotinea drug that’s legal for adults but illegal for people under 18 or 21, depending upon the state. But amid the vaping panic, nicotine testing is on the rise.

In Fairbury, Nebraska (population 3,803) for example, the school district is to begin nicotine testing students at the junior-senior high school who participate in extracurricular activities. Once a month, 20 to 25 such students will be randomly selected and mandated to give urine to school authorities. 

“It’s a huge problem, and right now, I think it’s new enough that we’re being very naive to think that more kids aren’t doing it,” Stephen Grizzle, the superintendent of Fairbury public schools, said of vaping.

Out of 383 students in the school, 30 were caught vaping in the 2018-19 school yearhardly a “huge” problem. For a first-time offense, the student is prohibited from participating in their chosen extracurricular activity for 10 days; a second offense is 45 days and a mandatory evaluation with a certified substance use counselor, at the student’s own expense. A third time will result in a suspension of 12 months from the activity.

“We want to provide a safe, substance-free school as best we can,” said Grizzle, “and we’re just hoping that through the implementation of the policy, that we’re helping students make the best decision.”

Keeping young people connected to fun activities under adult supervision is one of the best ways to discourage drug use.

A policy of punishing students who vape by denying them access to extracurricular activities is a bad one. Being cut off from participation in meaningful group projects like the drama club or the yearbook committee can not only make students angry and even more rebellious, but increases idle time that can be used to vape or experiment with other drugs. Many young people who lost their lives to overdose experienced the isolation and demotivation that follows exclusion from activities. Keeping young people connected to fun activities under adult supervision—giving them a sense of purposeis one of the best ways to discourage drug use.

The Amphitheater United School District in Tucson, Arizona also created a draconian Code of Conduct for students. It states that “Interscholastic participants who use, possess or distribute tobacco, drugs or alcohol at any time during their season of competition will be removed from the activity for the balance of the season. This rule applies 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of a student’s location.”

The code includes penalties for vaping. For a first-time offense, there is a choice of three punishments: a short- or long-term suspension, or expulsion. And vapes and parts such as cartridges or chargers are considered drug paraphernalia.

The Amphitheater Code illustrates another aspect of drug war panic: zero tolerance for any substance use. It doesn’t work. The reality is, some teens will experiment with drugs like nicotineand harsh consequences don’t lead to substance-free schools.

Student athletes have also been targeted. Yet another sensationalized articleVaping is ruining student athletes: ’It’s heartbreaking,’ Massachusetts parents, school officials say—features Cade Beauparlant, a hockey player. He was the captain of the team but kicked off for vaping.

“He was a good kid, very smart, very athletic, kind of had everything going for him, and then things just changed,” said his mother.

But vaping isn’t “ruining” the lives of athletes like Beauparlant. And what is “heartbreaking” is not allowing students to play sports that they excel at, just because they vaped.

The piece also makes a frightening, unsubstantiated claim linking Beauparlant’s restrictive lung disease to his use of nicotine: “He started undergoing treatment for nicotine addiction and learned he had developed a lung disease after at least four years of using nicotine products.” Despite the implication, there is no evidence to date that vaping causes any type of lung disease in teenagers.

Clinicians often fuel the hype. Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, has treated athletes who’ve been suspended for vaping. He stated, “Many don’t realize the pulmonary and neurological effects of using e-cigarettes, including asthma and lung conditions.”

Yet Winickoff offers no studies to back up his claim. In fact, vaping has not been shown to cause asthma or lung problems. Winickoff, a widely quoted media darling whose scaremongering, bogus assertions about vaping are regularly published in the mainstream press as fact, has also likened vaping to “bioterrorism.”  He also despises Juul and hopes that the company will be sued “for willfully designing and pushing a product that will cause harm to the children of the United States.” Should a pediatrician with a documented history of lying be taking care of your teens?

Instead of zero-tolerance and punishment, we need a harm reduction approach in schools.

As for the neurological effects of nicotine, they are mostly positive. Nicotine is a performance-enhancing drug, which increases energy, focus, concentration and motor abilities. Student athletes might use it for much the same reason as many adultsto power through a grueling schedule. 

Regular nicotine use can lead to dependence—which is not the same as addiction—but responses to this should not involve the creation of harms. It is not possible to drug-test away teen vaping, which largely consists of experimentation.

Instead of zero-tolerance and punishment, we need a harm reduction approach in schools—one that respects teenagers and doesn’t destroy their life opportunities. 

Photo by Steven Abraham on Unsplash

Helen Redmond

Helen is Filter's senior editor and a multimedia journalist. She is on the methadone, vaping and nicotine train. Helen is also a filmmaker. Her two documentaries about methadone are Liquid Handcuffs and Swallow THIS. As an LCSW, she has worked with people who use drugs for over two decades. Helen is an adjunct assistant professor and teaches a course about the War on Drugs at NYU. She lives in Harlem.

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