Vaping — the use of e-cigarettes to heat nicotine extracted from tobacco, flavorings and other chemicals to create an inhalable aerosol — has been the most widely used tobacco product among young people since 2014, according to the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention. In the center’s 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, about 1 in 35 high school students — grades six through eight — and 1 in 9 high school students said they had vaped in the past 30 days. For traditional cigarette smoking, those numbers drop to about 1 in 100 middle school students and 2 in 100 high school students.

“I don’t know if I have someone [students] who smokes cigarettes,” said Janyne Mathena, a health and physical education teacher at Blacksburg Middle School. “But vape for sure – from the sixth grade.”

Jon Fritsch, assistant director of Hokie Wellness, is well aware of this change in the way tobacco is commonly used and the rise in its use among young people.

“Before, all the things I did were trying to stop middle school students from starting to smoke or getting wet, but over the past three years now we have to come to schools and talk about quitting smoking,” said said Fritsch, who along with Laurie Fritsch oversees HEAT.

Each year, HEAT, which has approximately 30 student members, offers countless interactive health education workshops and awareness programs to the Virginia Tech community. The team’s offering ranges from safer sex and body image topics to sleep, digital wellbeing and tobacco.

For more than 20 years, Fritsch has also led Virginia Tech’s Tobacco-Free Hokies campaign. It has been extended to various colleges in the New River Valley since around 2003. After being temporarily sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic, the group returned to community outreach this spring and with a slightly different focus.

“The whole landscape of smoking and dipping has changed, so we changed our presentation to focus primarily on vaping,” Fritsch said.

The college presentation is similar to the Vape 10 Workshop that HEAT offers to the Virginia Tech community. Some adjustments have been made, allowing Hokie teachers to broaden their experience. “It’s a younger audience, so we have to teach in a way that they understand,” Stevens said. “It applies to the real world because I won’t always talk to students.”

Offering the workshop to colleges also embodies Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) and lives the university’s mission as a land-grant institution.

“You know, Blacksburg and Virginia Tech are so intertwined, but at the same time, there are still parts of Blacksburg that aren’t related to college,” said Pace, who grew up in Blacksburg. “Being able to make those connections and maybe help one of our teacher’s kids or someone else in the community is really important.”

Pace attended Blacksburg Middle and participated in the Tobacco-Free Hokies workshop as a middle school student. She said she remembered signing a pledge to abstain from smoking.

“And I didn’t use it,” Pace said.

Mathena said HEAT has helped supplement the school’s smoking-related health program for several years with very positive results and expects the same this time around.

“We will hear the students talk about it [the workshop] later in the day or later in the week,” Mathena said. “It’s nice to have students come in and give this information because it’s from people who are closer in age but who they can still look up to, it just means more.”

Written by Travis Williams

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