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JESSIEVILLE, Ark. — Right before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, public health officials warned of a crisis— the overwhelming number of kids vaping e-cigarettes in schools required widespread alarm and federal bans.

Now, almost nothing has changed when it comes to the prevalence of vaping devices and young people, with new vaping devices possibly making things worse.

“These bathrooms don’t look like much since this is the oldest building,” said Jamie Saveall, an assistant principal in the Jessieville School District. “We’re playing catch up all the time and trying to catch up to, you know, the trends that are happening,” he said.

And these trends show a resurgence of teens taking up and getting hooked on nicotine through vaping, according to the CDC.

Saveall led us on a tour into a 65-year-old school bathroom to show off new technology they’ve installed: vape detectors.

However, vaping on campus is still an issue despite concerted efforts to nip it in the bud.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) led the charge by going after Juul, the company whose discreet rechargeable cartridges and changeable flavor packs took the blame for attracting a new generation of young people. But by the time a ban on marketing the devices came out in 2022, the industry had already adjusted.

“It’s no longer a pod. It’s an all-in-one system,” said Scout Stubbs, co-owner with her husband of Drippers Vape Shops, as she holds a green device about the size of a nursery school magic marker. “The FDA made sure to not target these types of products. [Their regulations came out] before this product existed.”

Stubbs described the important difference between the reusable system of Juul devices and other older “open” systems and the wide-open world of newer disposable vapes.

“This is what took off because it is easy to use. It’s flavorful, and it’s high in nicotine,” she said.

Products like Esco-bars and Elfbars are made in China. American importers license companies there to make the one-piece units and ship them back here, avoiding many of the regulations and bans put in place by the FDA.

That means they can have fruity or sweet flavors, which was the very thing the U.S. government went after Juul over, but because they’re made overseas, the FDA doesn’t have the tools to regulate them.

“If they never submitted it at all, then they’re not on the FDA radar,” explained Stubbs. “They’re harder to go after, and so a lot of these companies are just playing roulette. They’re making money until they can get caught.”

While the companies avoid the feds, more and more kids can’t avoid the detection systems put in place at schools. It’s led to quite the collection of confiscated devices for Saveall— he has a gallon plastic bag filled with similar colorful devices.

But Jessieville isn’t alone in catching more kids sneaking a vape on school property. Saveall estimated his 800-student district caught about three dozen kids last year alone.

Meanwhile, down the road in Hot Springs, discipline in the Junior Academy for 7th-9th graders has spiked. After two school years with 19 infractions each year, officials disciplined 87 students in 2022-23—  all after the Juul ban went into place.

“These vapes after almost comparable to the Juul right now,” said Saveall. “So just by going after the Juul, they haven’t stopped anything.”

The FDA sent almost a thousand warning letters to shops selling Esco-bars and similar brands, including TrainSmoke Vape Shoppe in Hope, the only one in the Natural State.

Stubbs said she gets letters all the time from regulators while she tries to get her Arkansas-made products fully sanctioned. 

She added that even if the government took more action on the companies or vilified retailers like her, it won’t stop an age-old problem—  kids want to be adults and they’re going to get into trouble.

“Just like you the beer when you were in high school from your older brother, your friend in high school, that’s old enough, they’re going to get it,” she said. “Or even some parents, I’ve seen that happen. So it’s usually a straw buyer.”

With her livelihood on the line and a self-professed drive to encourage vaping to help adults quit smoking, Stubbs found herself lashing out at those adults, while reluctantly stocking her shelves with the products.

She pointed out some silver linings in the numbers: A CDC study from 2021 shows tobacco use at historic lows among teens and the percentage of kids getting addicted is smaller than the days when rock bands extolled smoking in the restroom.

“I know I’m making a lot of parallels between smoking and drinking, but I see a lot of parallels between these two,” she said. “Kids aren’t supposed to do it. They do it anyway. How do we address that?”

For school leaders like Saveall, addressing it goes beyond just banning vaping on campus. He knows it’s still going to be a problem, but things like new detectors give him a fighting chance.

“With the surveillance technology that we have, with the detector sending the text, I can normally be there at a detector before that student leaves the bathroom,” he said. “So most of the time, we’re, we’re right on the spot.”