Updated Jan 26, 2024 - Health

Schools use surveillance tech to punish vaping

Illustration of a juul device with an eyeball

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

High schools across the country are using advanced technology to monitor whether students are vaping — and they're sometimes handing down severe punishments when someone gets caught.

The big picture: Districts have set up sensors and surveillance cameras to detect vaping, often without informing students.

  • Thousands of high school students across the country have been caught vaping by surveillance equipment, AP reported.
  • Repercussions have included suspensions, expulsions, criminal charges and fines. Some schools have revoked or threatened to revoke academic honors and leadership positions.

By the numbers: About 2.8 million middle and high school students used tobacco products in 2023, according to the annual National Youth Tobacco Survey, amounting to about 10% of students overall.

  • E-cigarettes, used by more than 2.1 million students, were the most popular tobacco products for the 10th consecutive year.
  • Almost 9 out of 10 used flavored vapes.
  • Overall, tobacco use declined from 2022 to 2023.

How it works: Sensor technology, which checks air quality, is placed inside school bathrooms. When those sensors detect vaping, they activate surveillance cameras outside the bathroom in one district, per AP.

  • Another company's technology detects an increase in noise in school bathrooms and sends a text alert to school officials. It doesn't record audio.

The latest: A pilot program in Idaho, announced on Jan. 19, will provide funding to install vape detectors in high school bathrooms and/or locker rooms.

  • "The goals of this grant project are: Prevent students from vaping on campus. Provide intervention if they are caught vaping," the announcement said.

Schools can use federal COVID-19 relief funds to buy vape detectors, according to Triton Sensors, a company that manufactures them. That's because the funding was designed in part to help schools monitor and improve their air quality.

  • Last year, schools used settlement money from a lawsuit against Juul to purchase detection technology, Education Week reported.

Zoom out: Campaigns across the country, both local and national, have discouraged youth vaping, and it is illegal for retailers to sell tobacco products to anyone under 21.

  • A $282,000 grant to NYC schools, announced in November, is aimed at training health educators to teach kids about the risks of vaping.
  • The Tobacco Grant Program in California allows public agencies to apply for funding to enforce tobacco laws and conduct outreach. The program has $24.6 million in funding for fiscal year 2023-24.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Lung Association, and Food and Drug Administration have all launched national campaigns against youth vaping.

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