SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — More kids are using e-cigarettes and vape pens on school grounds, and fewer kids are getting caught, according to students and school staff.
At South Portland High School, students say they see other students using these devices every day.
"There's no comparison [to middle school]. It's obvious that it has just skyrocketed in high school," said Jack Brownstein, a freshman at SPHS.
"The majority of the times I use the school bathrooms, there's at least one or two kids in there JUULing," wrote one South Portland High School student who wanted to remain anonymous.
Senator Rebecca Millett (D - Cape Elizabeth) introduced a bill in Augusta Tuesday that aims to expand the definition of "tobacco products" banned on school grounds to include e-cigarettes and vape pens.
She said she submitted the bill after hearing from middle school students in South Portland about how rampant e-cigarette and vape use is in their school.
"Some of our students are addicted to the nicotine in that," said LeeAnne Dodge, the program director for SOPO UNITE, a drug-free community based organization made up of 60 high school and 50 middle school students, as well as teachers, faith leaders, and members of the media.
"I'm fearing that we're going to see more addiction and tougher to treat down the road," said Dodge. "I think now students are being more cautious and the places they're using them typically is in bathrooms."
Dodge said the most recent survey of Maine students found 1 out of 6 used an e-cigarette in last 30 days. They expect to have new results by the end of the school year.
Many of the devices are magnetic, so students hide them under desks or in bathrooms: places where teachers cannot see them, but where their friends know where to look.
"This school year we've confiscated fewer vaping devices than we did last year, but we don't think the use has gotten any less. We think students have gotten more clever about how to be discreet and hide it," said superintendent Ken Kunin. "We think it's going to take ongoing education efforts to have an impact. It's most frustrating that we're not driving down student use inside or outside of school because we know it has traumatic health impact."
Doctors with the American Lung Association said high concentrations of nicotine are dangerous, but because vaping is relatively new, there is not much research to explain the long-term effects.
South Portland High School Resource Officer Al Giusto said more kids are vaping or smoking e-cigarettes after a law change in 2017 that no longer allows police to issue summonses for possession.
Officer Giusto said that when they would find a student using one of these prohibited items, they could issue a summons, giving the student the option to go to court and pay a fine, or attend a tobacco intervention, education, and diversion class at the police station.
That policy allowed kids to be back in school the next day, instead of being suspended for multiple days and missing class.
Now, the school staff handles the issue, confiscating the item and issuing discipline.
"More kids are willing to take the chance because there are no legal consequences," said Ofc. Giusto.
Giusto said with the growing availability of liquid cannabis, students are vaping marijuana at school.
One of the major criticisms of the popular e-cigarette brands, JUUL, is the flavored pods (cucumber, mango, fruit, creme) that can be attractive to younger people.
According to the company's website, there are other businesses making counterfeit products that which mimic actual JUUL products.
"These products, which are sold both online and in physical stores, are unlawful, made with unknown and potentially hazardous chemicals, and with unregulated quality standards," the website reads. "These products often target youth with flavors such as Strawberry Milk, Lucky Charm, Bubble Bubble, Sour Gummy, Rainbow Drops, Taffy Burst, Cotton Candy, and Lemonade."
Sen. Millett is proposing another bill to ban flavored pods from the entire state.