Some students turn to new nicotine products

Some students report using nicotine packets, including Zyn, pictured here – Index Staff

The CDC describes the current state of nicotine use by teens in the United States as an “epidemic,” declaring  in bolded letters on its tobacco page that “Youth use of tobacco products in any form is unsafe.” 

Nicotine is a stimulant drug that binds to receptors in the brain, increasing processing speed and more notably improving the mood of the user by increasing their dopamine levels. Users are quick to gain a dependence on the chemical due to its short half-life (the time it takes to flush out of the system) and because of the speed of the drug in the body. 

This quick dependence is dangerous as products that contain nicotine generally have incredibly adverse side effects. Studies show that cancer, blood clots, and a multitude of other life-threatening diseases come as a result of using nicotine products. 

Despite ad campaigns and other initiatives to educate the youths of America about the general harmful nature of these products, students are still using them. A study conducted by the CDC estimates about 16.5% of teens nationwide use tobacco products more than once a month. 

The Haverford School is not an exception to the nationwide increase of nicotine products in teens and children. The use of nicotine products in the school community is not a new phenomenon. What is relatively new, however, is the use of vaping and other non-tobacco products. 

“My experience with vaping started about three-to-five years ago when vaping became a common term,” Third Form Dean Mr. Stephen Cloran said. “You would walk into the bathroom and smell something that seemed abnormal.”

About five years ago, the school had a vaping problem, with a large number of students using vapes in school on a daily basis. In 2017, a survey directed towards The Haverford School from the Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation, also known as Freedom from Chemical Dependency, recorded that 23% of Third Formers, 21% of Fourth Formers, 27% of Fifth Formers, and 42% of Sixth Formers had used nicotine products in the past 30 days. The administration is uncertain as to whether or not those numbers have changed.

“I feel like [nicotine pouches are] marketed towards us—young male athletes.”

Anonymous fourth former

“I don’t have the current objective data to fully understand the extent to which it’s increased or died down significantly,” Head of Upper School Mr. Mark Fifer said. “I can say that the chatter around it has diminished.”

Due to COVID, the administration has not conducted another survey, but some students believe that numbers have not significantly decreased. Rather, they think that the usage of nicotine has just been more underground. 

“If I were to take a guess, probably around 50 percent [of the Haverford student body] have tried, if not have used [nicotine],” said one Fifth Former, who vapes regularly. “Probably 25% actively use [nicotine].”

Some believe that the usage of nicotine at Haverford remains prevalent in the form of nicotine pouches. 

“I feel like [nicotine pouches are] marketed towards us—young male athletes,” said a Fourth Former who has used nicotine pouches frequently in the past. “It does not affect your lungs, and it’s not tobacco, so it won’t give you cancer.”

For others, the enticing flavors of various vapes were the reason they decided to use them.

A vape pen in a school classroom several years ago – photo by John Williams ’19

“Now it’s a lot less than I used to because I stopped using the flavor ones, and I started using the pods, which are just menthol flavored,” Anonymous Fifth Former One said. “And the flavor part I think is the biggest catch for teenagers because that’s the reason why I believe they stopped selling the flavored ones because the flavors were attracting kids, and it was something that appealed to the younger mindset too.”

In addition, some students find that although nicotine products are illegal in the state of Pennsylvania for individuals under 21, they are still easily obtainable for Haverford students. 

“If you walk into the right gas station, they will just give it to you,” said the Fourth Former. “Some places just don’t card you.” 

Students often begin using nicotine at social events and are introduced to it by other users. 

“[A friend] was like, do you want to hit it? And I was like, you know, why not?” said the Fifth Former. “I’d never had one before and like I’ve always known I’m gonna try something of everything at one point. Not everything, but you try things every now and then.”

His experience is parallel to other students’ experiences with first trying nicotine products. 

“First time I tried it, I was actually really young,” said the Fourth Former. “I had a cousin who I would hang out with a lot and for [a joke] she told me to put [a vape] in my mouth and inhale.”

Adults see curiosity about nicotine products as the main way students begin to use them.

“Curiosity leads to experimenting. All students are dealing with varying levels of stress and anxiety, and this is one unhealthy way to cope with it,” said Mr. Cloran. “Unfortunately, they lean into this unhealthy tool to cope.”

At least at Haverford, peer pressure does not seem to be a large factor in trying nicotine products.

“I wouldn’t say that people do it to look cool or like peer pressure. Me personally, with anything I have tried, have not felt peer pressured into doing it,” said the Fourth Former. “I was just genuinely curious as to why people did it, so I tried and realized there was a buzz. Some people just enjoy the buzz and do it more and more, and that’s where the problem is.”

For most of the students, the initial use was not enough to get them hooked. It took multiple attempts afterward for them to start using nicotine consistently. 

“When I go to a party, I have it, and I think I hit it a lot more there. Just ‘cause I’m not a big drinker, so when I’m not drinking, I feel the need to do something and like I end up doing it,” said the Fifth Former. “For me it was, it sort of just became instead of having a bottle of water in my hand, I’m just hitting that instead of taking a sip of my water.”

Some students even find the use of nicotine at school, particularly in secluded locations.

“If you go to [some bathrooms on campus] you will literally find [nicotine pouches] on the walls,” said another Fifth Former. “I see it sometimes in class too, and it just looks like they’re chewing gum.” 

The other Fifth Former recounted a particular instance where he was offered a vape in a bathroom at school, and accepted the offer

“The largest piece that we have is the Brother’s Keeper program, which tries to get students to intervene if they think that one of their friends has an unhealthy relationship with a substance,”

Mr. Mark fifer

“It was just offered to me. I wasn’t tempted to hit it,” he said. “Like, I was just like, ‘All right, why not?’”

Some students are less bold than others.  

“I have never used nicotine at school. I am scared of getting caught,” said the Fourth Former. “But a lot of the time you can smell nicotine in the bathroom or you will just see guys ripping an elf bar.”

In the Upper School Handbook, the School outlines disciplinary actions against students that use nicotine products. Most notably, the school gives students with a first infraction what is essentially a second chance, allowing the student to remain at Haverford, but not participate in the community until he is cleared by the School Counselor. For students with multiple infractions and for those who sell and distribute nicotine products, the School takes a harder stance, with either case resulting in disciplinary action up to and including expulsion. Generally, the Honor Council does not handle cases involving the use of illegal substances. Cases go directly to the upper school office. 

Despite students keeping the products hidden from teachers and other adults, the administration was quick to realize that there was a large number of students using nicotine products.

“As educated people will do, they will put two and two together, reading articles and watching the news, and discuss,” Mr. Cloran said. “Also as a parent, you hear about vaping. That led to the administration keeping an eye out.”

To combat the increase of students using nicotine products, the school began to try and educate students on the harmful effects of many nicotine products 

“Every generation of students has some sort of conversation around drugs and alcohol. Mr. Fifer and the Form Deans have different people come in and talk to different grades,” Fourth Form Dean and Honor Council Faculty Advisor Mr. Jeremy Hart said. “Having people share their stories and hearing voices that aren’t [one of the Form Deans] does help.”

Mr. Hart believes that shying away from the topic is the wrong approach to dealing with student nicotine use.

“It’s a continual conversation. Part of what we do here at Haverford is the mission statement, ‘preparing boys for life,’” Mr. Hart said. “Giving boys here the information to make decisions is of vital importance.”

Mr. Cloran also attributes the decline of vaping at Haverford to conversations and education.

“I think the experts have shared their studies more and there has been more education about the unknown factors of vapes,” Mr. Cloran said. “Young people have had health emergencies from vaping and those news clips and information from the media trickles down to the students and scare and educate them on using nicotine products.”

The faculty also discuss student use of nicotine products.

“We do in faculty meetings have conversations about prevention,” Mr. Fifer said, “Basically, we are providing faculty with information so that they are prepared to intervene if they suspect student use.” 

Including nicotine use, especially in the form of vaping, in the tobacco policy of “The Upper School Parent-Student Handbook,” and allowing students to be safely curious about these products is the main way the administration has been handling this issue. The Handbook outlines strict punishment policies for students using nicotine products. Additionally, the increase of the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 has also helped in dissuading students from vaping, as it is now harder to get tobacco products. Despite this, many locations still sell to people under the age of 21. 

“Having those conversations, like with [FCD], is important, but it is more important that these conversations are not one-off,” Mr. Hart said. “It’s important for students to be able to ask questions in an environment where they don’t have to fear retribution or punishment for their questions.”

A member of the class of 2019 smokes a cigar immediately after his graduation – Communications

Mr. Hart also realizes the importance of also monitoring these conversations.

“There could be more space for student-led discussions, but I also think that authentic student conversations can stray negative in private spaces,” Mr. Hart said. “Finding a way to leverage student leaders to lead these conversations is key.”

Haverford provides curriculum from the Freedom from Chemical Dependency Group, incorporates information into the health curriculum starting in the First Form, and provides assemblies with medical and addiction professionals. The administration and teachers view educating students on nicotine products as the main way to combat student use.

“When you are educated on something, that’s power,” said Mr. Cloran. “When we receive valid and reliable education, we tend to choose healthy choices.”

One initiative constantly highlighted by Haverford is the Brother’s Keeper program.

“The largest piece that we have is the Brother’s Keeper program, which tries to get students to intervene if they think that one of their friends has an unhealthy relationship with a substance,” said Mr. Fifer. 

The Brother’s Keeper program was initiated several years ago to encourage students to refer their peers to the administration if they believe they are struggling with drugs or alcohol. The “Brother’s Keeper Card,” a physical card provided to all Haverford students encouraging the program, states that “The School will not pursue disciplinary action but instead will bring information to the student, without naming its source, and will confidentially provide him with any resources and support he may need.”

“I would never consider using it.”

Anonymous Third former

“If there is a student who has a friend or peer who they think has a complicated relationship with drugs and alcohol, they can call the number [on the Brother’s Keeper Card], and it’s strictly a supportive framework,” said Mr. Fifer. “There’s no disciplinary intervention.”

Some students who have struggled with nicotine addiction find it either difficult to seek help or don’t believe that they need help. 

“Obviously a lot of people go through withdrawal when they stop using certain types of drugs, and nicotine is definitely one of them,” said the Fifth Former. “They get all jittery, and they feel like ‘I need to hit it.’”

The Fifth Former has had some impulses to use nicotine. 

“I went on vacation recently for a week and one night I had the urge to hit it, but I didn’t have it on me,” he said. “But then after that, I went downstairs, and I was hanging out with my family, and it went away. When I’m distracted, I have no urge to hit it.” 

Some students find it easier to quit. 

“I never really had that bad of a problem with [nicotine] but one time I got really sick and I just never wanted to use it again,” said the Fourth Former.

In terms of the health effects of using nicotine, some students have noticed negative implications. 

“I have asthma and like, it’s not severely bad, it’s just there in the winter. I start to feel a kick in if I were to run or something like that,” said the Fifth Former. “And using it after, I think after like two months of using it, I started to realize my shortness of breath. And now I can’t take as deep a breath as I used to be able to really.”

Students who have friends who also use nicotine notice negative respiratory effects as well. 

“I’ve seen people who have used it, especially my friends who I bike with,” said a different Fourth Former, who doesn’t use nicotine, but has friends who do. “Slowly their biking became slower and slower and slower until they almost couldn’t breathe.” 

Other students see no reason to start as they know the risks of some of these nicotine products.

“I would never consider using it. I know it’s bad so I am not going to use it,” said Anonymous Fourth Former Three, who’s never tried nicotine before. “If a friend told me to smoke, I would probably say no.” 

Students at Haverford are aware of the health repercussions and negative implications of using nicotine products through educational opportunities and outreach programs. Despite this, students often find themselves struggling with addiction, feeling isolated and without support. However, the difficult step of making an effort to reach out to a friend or trusted member of the community is essential in avoiding adverse health effects and addiction. 

“Like I think everyone thinks like I’ll stop at some point,” said the Fifth Former. “But it’s just a matter of actually doing it sooner than later because if you don’t do it now, it’s never gonna happen.”