CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - E-cigarettes continue to gain popularity among teenagers, especially inside the classroom.
In a WTOC Investigation, we found school districts in Bryan, Effingham, and Chatham counties who reported a 50 percent increase in incidents related to students vaping at school.
Teens are using one particular E-cigarette that is designed to look like a thumb drive. It's called a JUUL. It's not much bigger than a pack of gum, and it also has a USB port for charging, making it easier to disguise from teachers and parents. What concerns officials the most, however, is that the pods are no different than a pack of cigarettes.
As the E-cigarette market continues to grow, so has the demand for the JUUL. In the last year, JUUL sales have jumped almost 800 percent and dominate 71 percent of the vaping market, according to Nielson.
"So, to hear about this new type of vaping that gives a huge jolt of nicotine but it looks cool, it looks sleek, it looks tempting - these are exactly the type of things you have to pay attention to as a parent," said Amy Hughes, mother of three sons.
Even parents like Amy Hughes who are paying attention may not even realize their child has one of the devices because it looks like a flash drive that you plug into your computer.
Health experts are now calling vaping an epidemic in U.S. high schools, and school officials in the Coastal Empire are blaming it on the JUUL because the sleek design makes it easy to hide.
"We have to be aware of it. They are so small that they are hard to detect, so we've got to be on top of it," said Effingham County Schools Superintendent, Randy Shearouse.
Last year, Effingham County Schools reported a 53 percent increase in tobacco-related products. Savannah-Chatham County Schools saw a 195 percent increase. According to Georgia's Board of Education, until the 2017-2018 school year, these three school districts had seen a four-year decline, but districts are ready for that to change.
"We put it in our policy. Teachers know about it. The principals know about it, so we are going to treat it very seriously because it is such a high level of nicotine in those products," Shearouse said.
Bryan and Effingham counties both have policies to suspend any students who are caught vaping.
"I think it's concerning that it could be stronger than a cigarette and that it's very addictive," said Dr. Denise Scott, Coordinator of Student Services, Bryan County. "I think kids don't understand how addictive it could be, so we're just trying to make sure we are on it as much as possible and educate the parents, the students, and the teachers."
Savannah-Chatham County Schools say they will treat it like smoking regular cigarettes, which is potential for in-school suspension or expulsion. However, health experts fear a policy is not enough.
"The state health department is currently in the process of developing an awareness campaign because juuling is so you can't even tell students are doing it, and so the parents or the teachers can't even tell they are using it because there is no obvious smoke or vapor that comes out of it," said Cristina Gibson, Coastal Health District.
While some will still try to hide it at school, they're not hiding from social media. In fact, we found pictures of teens posting about vaping. It's unclear how old they are, but vaping is illegal for anyone under 18.
"It's as simple as getting away with something because no one knows what you're doing, but what's underneath that is a possible addiction that's growing."
Some fear we may be headed towards a new nicotine crisis.
"It is a gateway. It's shown that children who vape, who juul, are more likely to smoke or try other drugs in the future," said local pediatrician, Dr. Ben Spitalnick.
While most kids are buying them off the internet and at gas stations, we found some local businesses that are actually trying to be a part of the solution.
"We don't want to be associated with JUULs," said Gayle Kraft, Co-Owner, Vapor Trails.
Vapor Trails in Pooler says their mission is to find an alternative way for adults to stop smoking. Tobacco use is illegal under the age of 18, and they say their market is not teenagers.
"They are a very negative name in vaping right now," Kraft said. "We don't want to be associated with a product that has such a negative connotation for minors, vaping, or just vaping in general."
From businesses to schools to potential health ramifications, there have been multiple learning curves that have come with the new vaping industry.
"We really just didn't know how to handle it."
While schools and some businesses are taking steps to protect our children in the community, parents also realize that they, too, have a responsibility to set necessary guidelines for their teens.
"I think when you're a kid and you try something and there's a risk to it, and then you don't get caught, then you're more willing to try the next risky thing and the next risky thing and the next risky thing," Hughes said.