Slowly, teachers at Lincoln Southeast High School started to piece together what they were seeing.
Eagle-eyed when it came to spotting the red flash of a Marlboro pack or sniffing out just a hint of smoke in a bathroom stall, school employees started noticing something they hadn't seen before.
Kids exhaling a vapor. Students concealing a plastic or metal device resembling a pen — or a fake cigarette.
Confronted, students told teachers it was no big deal. They weren't cigarettes. There was no tobacco, no smoke, no nasty cancer risk.
“One student told me it was a healing process,” said Associate Principal Erik Witt. “He was moisturizing his lungs, and they were healing from using an e-cigarette.”
So the high school is putting parents on watch: More and more of your kids are smoking electronic cigarettes.
In an email blast sent to parents on Sept. 20, school officials warned them they were seeing a rise in e-cigarette use among their high schoolers and reminded them that anyone caught “vaping” could face detention or suspension.
“We definitely wanted to take the opportunity to make sure we have that consistent expectation out there: We don't want those things at school,” Witt said.
Often used by smokers trying to quit, e-cigarettes are gaining in popularity among high school and middle school students, according to a report released this month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the National Youth Tobacco Survey found the number of high schoolers using e-cigarettes had doubled in 2012, to one in 10 kids. Last year 1.78 million high school and middle school students tried one.
E-cigs are significantly pricier than cigarettes. The Blu brand costs $40 for a four-pack of disposable e-cigs, and a starter kit that includes an e-cigarette pack, batteries, charger and flavor cartridges retails for $70.
E-cigarettes started cropping up at Omaha area high schools over the past year or two, but use hasn't become widespread, school officials said. Most districts have declared themselves smoke-free zones and don't allow the use of tobacco products on school grounds.
“We started seeing e-cigarettes about two years ago,” Millard Public Schools spokeswoman Rebecca Kleeman said. “We do not allow them. We are a smoke-free campus, and that falls under it.”
Bellevue spokeswoman Amanda Oliver said e-cigarettes haven't been a major problem on either the high school or middle school level.
“One or two of the high schools have had students ask about if they're allowed to bring them to school, but otherwise we're not seeing any increase in them being used or students being caught, per se,” she said.
OPS spokesman Todd Andrews said the district hasn't seen e-cigarettes on school grounds.
“We have had no reports of students using e-cigarettes,” he said.
The plastic or metal device holds a liquid — available flavors range from the autumnal apple cider to sticky toffee pudding — that typically contains nicotine but not tobacco. When a user puffs — or “vapes,” as it's often called — a lithium battery heats the liquid and produces a vapor that simulates cigarette smoke, sometimes with an LED that resembles the glow of a lighted cigarette.
The device has won fans among smokers trying to cut back. An e-cigarette can deliver the same effects as smoking, minus the burn, the harsh smell and carcinogens such as tar.
But the wide availability of flavors and the rise of smoke shops such as Plumes in west Omaha and Bellevue have created recreational fans, too — people who enjoy the social aspect of kicking back and trying different flavors of the smooth vapor, as at a hookah lounge. According to the New York Times, e-cigarette sales are expected to top $1.7 billion this year.
Shops such as Plumes and GNS Vapor in Lincoln don't sell e-cigarettes to customers under 18, even though Nebraska law prohibits only sales of tobacco, not e-cigarettes, to customers under 18.
That could be changing.
The State Legislature's General Affairs Committee will discuss a potential e-cigarette sales ban for minors at a hearing Friday.
“I'm concerned about e-cigarettes, too,” said the committee's chairman, Sen. Russ Karpisek. “There aren't that many studies on what are the long-term effects. I think they're a great idea for people trying to quit smoking, but do we really want 16-year-old kids being able to buy them?”
Karpisek said he believes e-cigarettes are probably safer and healthier than their tobacco counterparts, but said the presence of addictive nicotine shouldn't be discounted.
The few studies that do exist paint a mixed picture of the safety of e-cigarettes and their ability to help smokers quit. And it's that uncertainty and lack of research that concerns Witt, who worries that teenagers are glossing over the possible health hazards of vaping.
“They feel like because it's avoiding all the ill-effects they hear about cigarettes, the tobacco and the tar, that it's OK,” Witt said.
“Some of these young teenage kids are under a pretty big misconception about what it is they're using. A lot of kids,” Witt said, “are under the impression it's just flavoring and doesn't include nicotine: 'Well, all I'm getting is flavoring from it.' We don't know if you are or not.”