This map, provided by the Indiana Department of Health, shows which counties in Indiana have included vaporizers in their tobacco-free policies.
This map, provided by the Indiana Department of Health, shows which counties in Indiana have included vaporizers in their tobacco-free policies.
The most recent study performed by the Indiana Department of Health shows middle and high school students are smoking less.

Still, Rob Pruett, executive director of Drug Free Howard County Council for Substance Abuse Prevention, said nicotine addiction among young Hoosiers “remains on a pandemic level.”

According to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, “an estimated 3.6 million (13.1%) U.S. middle and high school students reported using e-cigarettes” within 30 days of the survey.

According to the Indiana Health Department, roughly 3,100 young Hoosiers form daily nicotine habits every year. Additionally, the department estimates 151,000 Hoosiers will die prematurely due to their nicotine addiction.

One of the main tools Pruett uses to fight nicotine addiction among young people is education.

For example, the Indiana Health Department organized a panel discussion at Ivy Tech in October that brought together nursing students, the head resource officer at Kokomo High School and the respiratory therapist manager from Howard Community Regional Health Hospital.

Pruett also works with schools to develop vape-free policies.

A toolkit distributed to Indiana schools via the state’s health department provides a checklist that must be met for the state to recognize a campus as “tobacco-free.”

The checklist requires school policies to “express or imply” possession of nicotine products are prohibited everywhere on school grounds and in school vehicles. Additionally, the policy must apply to everyone, including parents, staff and visitors.

Other measures, such as mandatory tobacco education for staff and students, are suggested.

According to the state health department, four public school districts in Indiana do not have a comprehensive tobacco-free school policy. Additionally, there are still 37 public school districts across the state that have left vapes out of their tobacco-free policies.

For example, none of the public schools in Carroll County have a comprehensive tobacco-free policy that includes vaping.

One of the best resources for students trying to quit nicotine, Pruett said, is the state’s free quitline, 1-800-784-8669.

Jennifer Ogle, director of Howard County Tobacco Free Coalition, explained that each school in Howard County has its own way of dealing with students who are caught vaping.

Steve Dishon, principal at Taylor High School in Kokomo, said administrators try to go beyond punitive measures.

“I think a lot of people are just quick to punish because you’ve got something you’re not supposed to have,” Dishon said.

He explained that the school’s behavioral specialist works with students to address the root of their addiction. Working with the behavioral specialist, students answer questions, such as why they want to vape, where they are when cravings hit and what their mental state looks like when they reach for their vapes.

“I don’t know that we have found cigarettes in the school in a couple years,” Dishon said. “I can’t even remember the last time.”

He added that kids are “unfairly targeted” by vape companies that falsely portray their products as safer alternatives to smoking.

Dishon also said the number of students who vape at Taylor High School has decreased.

“We certainly don’t have the answer to it, but I think we’re definitely making a dent in vaping at school,” Dishon said. He added that the school’s installation of vape detectors — similar to smoke detectors — has helped deter students from vaping at Taylor.

At Northwestern High School, also in Kokomo, students who are caught with vaporizers are automatically suspended for five days.

Vice Principal Jordan Nelson explained that the school also tries to engage in restorative conversations with students who are caught vaping.

“90% of the time that I talk to the kid, they tell me that they started vaping because they thought it would help with nerves, or anxiety or stress,” Nelson said. “And most of them end up telling me that it has made those things worse.”

Nelson explained that he uses those conversations to build a relationship with the students and connect them with resources that help quit vaping or manage stress.

Nelson added that although the school doesn’t have a formal program in place to prevent students from vaping, students attend a homeroom-esque class throughout the year titled “face to face,” where they learn about the dangers of vaping.

As an additional preventative measure, students who participate in extracurricular activities (including driving) are randomly drug tested. Nelson said drug tests are able to detect nicotine and alcohol.

Although the number of students who are caught vaping has been reduced in the past few years, Nelson said the number is still higher than he would like it to be.

“One of our biggest sites is that it’s just too easy for kids to get,” Nelson said. “I mean, kids say all the time that gas stations don’t card them. And so when it’s that easy for kids to get their hands on it, and you add curiosity and daily stressors, I think it’s just an uphill battle.”

Ogle said one of the health department’s goals is to work with schools to find alternative, non-punitive methods to deal with students who smoke or vape.

“When a kid is suspended, the research is out there that (being suspended) usually follows the students in a negative way,” Ogle said.

“What we’re trying to do is go into schools and to say, ‘Look, let us educate them and the parents and have them be in class,’” Ogle said. She added methods that work in Kokomo high schools don’t necessarily work at schools in other counties.

“Every school has a different makeup of students,” she said.

In some cases, students caught using nicotine products are issued a civil ticket and 20 hours of community service.

Billie Warnock, a court reporter for Superior Court III, explained the tickets cost $185.50, which is split between a $50 fine and $135.50 in court costs.

James Organ, a police officer in Howard County who regularly deals with students, added the students have roughly 30 days to pay the fine. If the students don’t pay, a court date is set for them to discuss further options with a judge.

Renee Kinney, a Howard County juvenile probation officer in charge of community service, said she saw an increased rate of underaged people caught vaping this school year.

Normally, Kinney said, she would oversee one or two students who were caught vaping. But the first semester of this school year, she had 10.

She was also surprised to see an increase in middle school students caught vaping — attributing the convenience and flavoring as key marketing points designed to attract younger consumers.

Going into the second semester, Kinney said the number of students she’s seen has gone back down. Part of that, she suspects, is students spreading the word that people caught with vapes will be issued tickets.

Ogle stated that Indiana has the lowest tax rate for nicotine products compared to surrounding states.

Last January, Rep. Julie Olthoff, R-Crown Point, proposed a bill that attempted to raise taxes on tobacco products and electronic nicotine devices. However, the bill failed to pass through the State House of Representatives.

Now, Senate Bill 382 is suggesting a tax change for vaporizers, reducing the tax rate on closed system products, such as Juul vaporizers, from 25% to 15% of the wholesale price.

“It’s not a policy decision that was made to do that (reduce tax rates on nicotine products),” said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. “It was just a correction to fix what had started to be done last session.”

Holdman added that the proposed changes aim for “parity between open and closed systems.”

Members of Voice, a statewide youth empowerment program that aims to reduce nicotine consumption, met with state legislators on Feb. 11 in Indianapolis.

The students, who were from Hamilton and Howard counties, spoke to senators about different vaping mechanisms and how students are able to conceal them.

“A lot of those senators and representatives don’t even know these vapes and what they look like and how they’re so deceiving,” Ogle said. “So we just had a great day educating them on what the epidemic’s all about.”

Ogle added that the legislators who met with Voice were supportive and hoped to amend the Senate bill.

The attempt by Rep. Ann Vermilion, R-Marion, to amend the bill on Wednesday failed. Now, Ogle said, representatives are anticipating the bill to be passed to a conference committee, where more changes can be made.
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