Hampton High School teacher Hardy Cameron initially saw vaping as a fad at his school like fidget spinners, but soon realized he couldn’t be more wrong. Within a short period of time, he noticed an increasing number of students vaping on school grounds, in bathrooms, and even on buses. When approached about their vaping activities students typically responded, “At least we’re not smoking.”

Cameron admits he wasn’t fully aware of the potential dangers or contents of these newly popular vape products. Initially he believed they were just a mix of flavours and vaporized water and not much to be concerned about. But as an active member of the joint Health and Safety Committee at his school (in collaboration with Worksafe NB), he soon realized the negative impact vaping was having on the school’s environment.

One day while performing regular bathroom checks, he alarmingly noticed, “you couldn’t see 6 feet in front of you! I attempted to ensure no one had passed out, and left the room feeling lightheaded and shaky.” Non-vaping students soon began complaining about the ever-present vape smoke in the bathrooms and voiced concerns about their safety. Cameron began to question his own right to breathe clean air in his workplace, as well as how vaping was affecting the students’ leaning environment.

Obtaining vape devices from students caught using them on school grounds posed an additional problem. “I confiscated vape devices that have leaked fluids onto my hand, turning it black and causing it to go numb,” says Cameron. He also had concerns over the potential for exploding batteries when seizing devices. Finally, when his own children began riding on school buses, his fears of them being exposed to vaping products, along with second-hand vapour, only fuelled his growing apprehension towards vape products. Before too long, a notice was circulated through Hampton High School describing a provincial grant program that funded initiatives aimed at reducing youth vaping rates in New Brunswick. Cameron applied for and received this Take Action on Tobacco Use (TATU) Grant from the New Brunswick Department of Social Development in 2018. His plan to combat the issue of youth vaping at his school now had funding.

As a shop teacher with an environmental degree, Cameron knew he was not a health expert and decided the best way to address this issue was to educate himself. He started by inquiring to neighbouring schools who had similar programs often referred to as SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco) or TATU (Taking Action on Tobacco Use) groups. He learned about the benefits of getting students involved and soon formed his own SWAT group called The Clean Air Initiative (CAI). A group of 7 to 10 students met regularly – once per week at lunchtime – to talk about their concerns with nicotine addiction, vaping-related illnesses they had seen in the news and on social media, as well as the issue of vaping and mental health. Many students shared the fact that they vape to help cope with their anxiety. The group also discussed how big tobacco cleverly uses marketing techniques to target youth populations into taking up vaping.

Cameron wanted his initiative to focus on supportive measures for students who vape rather than punitive. He promoted the idea of sending students who vape to a community garden (which is now located on school grounds) rather than the principal’s office, to provide students with opportunities to occupy their hands with gardening rather than vaping, and to encourage increased self-esteem through the acquisition of new skills and friends.

Cameron also partnered with certified tobacco educator (CTE) Kerrie Luck on a number of initiatives at his school. She helped him create a survey to determine how many students were actually vaping, how many were being exposed to second-hand vapour, and what could be done to combat the situation from a comprehensive approach. The survey revealed that 27% of the 357 participants identified themselves as frequent users and that 90% or more students had witnessed students vaping in the classroom during class in 2018-2019. Other steps included a comprehensive approach to the vaping issue through the lens of a logic model. This model focuses on 4 key areas of the vaping issue at the school including (1) Compliance & Enforcement (2) Awareness & Culture (3) Cessation Support and (4) Staff Training.

Cameron has been pleased with the both the district and staff response to his efforts, and the support he has received from outside organizations as well as the students themselves. “I was impressed with students who volunteered to join our group, including those who vaped and sought out our group so they can get help to stop.” Other signs of progress include new signage provided by the Anglophone South School District this past year aimed at supporting the enforcement and promotion of the existing vaping policies.

Cameron has big plans for the future of his Clean Air Initiative group. He has been working on securing a health professional from the Horizon Health Network to come to his high school regularly to provide outreach programs as well as cessation support to students. He has recruited the art teacher to promote images of healthy environments by enlisting the help of students to create pictures of clean, fresh air as visual reminders of their rights to a healthy learning environment. He also hopes to provide information sessions to parents to help them better understand the gravity of the vaping issue in schools.

Plans are also in the works to host a conference on vaping prevention and education in schools to further learn about challenges and successes that other schools have experienced in an effort to share knowledge and resources. A follow-up survey will be done in the spring of 2020 to evaluate the effectiveness of the actions taken by the CAI thus far, and to determine if the actions taken are making a difference statistically at the school.

Finally, Cameron plans to encourage students who take media studies to create a mini-documentary about the Clean Air Initiative program by suggesting students could talk about their personal stories of overcoming nicotine addiction and demonstrate that there is help and hope for students who become addicted to nicotine.  “We don’t know the long-term health effects of these vape products which are readily available in many vape shops across the province to underage students who can easily access through friends or family and even online.” Vape products may have been touted as safer than combustible cigarettes, but Cameron wants students to remember that “safer doesn’t mean safe!”

Photos and story used with permission.

Published in February 2020.

Written by Kristin Farnam, NBATC Coordinator.