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Idaho Education Dept. Buying Vape Detectors for 31 Districts

Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare’s Project Filter applauds the use of technology for intervention measures, but implores school leaders to provide alternatives to suspension and address teen nicotine addiction.

Closeup of a person holding a black vape pen and a vape cartridge in the palm of their hand.
With Idaho’s rich history of cowboys, rodeos and frontier camping under starry night skies, tobacco and nicotine use is well-entrenched in the local culture.

But images of students smoking, vaping or chewing tobacco on school grounds are far less romantic, and recent data that indicates an alarming number of children as young as 12 use nicotine products has disturbed public officials. In response, the Idaho Department of Education has provided 31 local education agencies — including public, charter and tribal schools — with grants to cover vape detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms.

Announced in a news release last week, Idaho awarded Vape Detector Pilot grants to 59 applicants, many of which serve rural and low-income communities. All applicants were required to provide evidence of the need for vape detectors, detail their ongoing intervention and prevention efforts, and list incidents of vaping back to 2022.

The cost of the program and individual grant amounts were not disclosed. The allocation will come out of the state’s Millenium Fund, established in 2000 from money the state received in a settlement with tobacco companies dating back to the late 1990s. The fund exceeded $100 million when it was created, according to the Idaho State Treasurer’s Office.

“Putting the right tools to address vaping into the hands of our school districts is an important first step in tackling this problem and ensuring the health of our students and educational communities,” Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield said in a public statement. “I hope that schools find this equipment to be an effective new resource in safeguarding the health and well-being of their students.”

Project Filter, an initiative overseen by Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare that counters tobacco and e-cigarette company marketing efforts, is working on a summary report based on surveys of 2,000 students last year. Researchers determined that 8.6 percent of children across the state between the ages of 12 and 18 vape, and among those youth users, 88.5 percent indicated that they were “surrounded by people in their life,” whether relatives or friends, who consume nicotine or tobacco products regularly, said Ivie Smart, Project Filter program manager. The research report will be released to the public in the coming weeks.

To counter the culture of intergenerational tobacco and nicotine use, Project Filter works with promoters of local rodeos and outdoor festivals to find sponsors other than tobacco companies, Smart said. It’s also pushing school administrators across the state to provide alternatives to suspension for students caught vaping in school, to include intervention and treatment programs in accordance with best practices publicized by the American Lung Association.

Suspension still appears to be the typical response in Idaho and across the country, said Casie Jones, Project Filter health program specialist. She and Smart have mixed feelings about the addition of vape detectors in Idaho schools. The intervention that begins when users get caught is a good thing, they said, but suspension as a deterrent only goes so far, and administrators need to do more to address the problem of addiction.

“It’s a median response for what needs to be done,” Jones said of putting vape detectors in school. “There should also be [nicotine and tobacco awareness] curriculum, and staff to support students.”

Jones said high-end detectors used in schools, which can exceed $10,000, detect vaping, smoke and THC (marijuana), and have sound capabilities that identify instances of bullying.

While Idaho’s anti-vape programs and public service campaigns are funded by settlement money from tobacco companies dating back decades, districts in other states are buying detectors with recent funding from the 2020 mass-action lawsuit against Juul Labs Inc., which involved thousands of plaintiffs and more than $1 billion in settlements. The suits alleged the company marketed to children and failed to provide appropriate warnings about the health dangers of its e-cigarette products.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.