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New detectors are sniffing out teen vape-users in these northern Alberta schools

It’s no secret that nicotine-addicted teens cut out of class to vape, often in school washrooms.

But new technology has emerged to help school administrators catch them in the act: vape detectors.

The Holy Family Catholic Regional Division in Peace River, Alta., is adopting vape detectors this fall for its eight school buildings.

Superintendent Betty Turpin said the idea came from students during a meeting with the board of trustees.

“It was unanimous that the students were reporting that vaping was going on in the washrooms and it was making them uncomfortable to go into the washrooms,” Turpin said in an interview.

“When students say that, you can’t just ignore it. You have to do something because all students should feel comfortable in the school.”

The vape detectors cost $1,700 each. The division has spent a total of $80,000 to install 35 devices across eight schools. Turpin said they hope to mitigate the costs with grant money.

The devices detect particulates and loud noises, and send a message to the phones of administrators who can then investigate.

 an unidentified 15-year-old high school student uses a vaping device.
Superintendent Betty Turpin hopes the vape detectors will help improve the student experience and curb vaping at school. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Les Hagen, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, acknowledged that schools need to try alternative measures to help students break away from smoking and vaping.

“I really feel for schools because schools have become the ground zero for the vaping epidemic,” said Hagen.

“We’re allowing tobacco companies and vaping companies to push these products to kids.”

Installed on ceilings

While some schools in the United States have struggled with students destroying detectors or administrators not being able to intervene on time, Turpin said that isn’t a major concern. 

The devices are installed in cages on ceilings. Turpin said at least one administrator will always be free to check alerts — and hallway security cameras may also be used.

She hopes the detectors will help improve the student experience and curb vaping at school.

“This just allows for awareness,” she said. “All our schools know, all our families know, all our students know that these devices will be in their schools and hopefully it will detract them from vaping.”

In Alberta, vaping is illegal for anyone under the age of 18. Minors who possess or use vaping products can be fined. Adults who sell or give vaping products to minors can face penalties. 

“We may not stop them from vaping outside of school hours, but our schools have rules and vaping is considered an illegal substance,” Turpin said.

Students in the division who are caught vaping have their vapes confiscated. Their parents or guardians are called and the student is suspended for three days. Repeat offences bring longer suspensions.

The school also brings in addictions experts for class workshops to educate students about the risks of vaping.

Ground zero

Hagen, of Action on Smoking and Health, encourages schools to try corrective measures beyond overusing suspensions. 

“We don’t need to create another problem here. We encourage schools if they’re going to use punitive measures that they are corrective.”

Hagen said that it’s important to remember the reasons why kids may be vaping.

“We’re allowing tobacco companies and vaping companies to push these products to kids.”

Vaping products at a downtown Toronto vape shop are pictured on April 25, 2023.
The Alberta government said it has no plans to ban flavoured vape products at this time. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Candy-like flavours are one of the ways vaping products can draw kids in. While some provinces have brought in bans on the sale of flavours, the Alberta government and the federal government have not. Canada has banned other flavoured tobacco products, like menthol cigarettes.

“The very simple answer is simply to align the regulations we have on tobacco products with vaping products,” Hagen said. “The sooner governments follow through, the better. And we can hopefully let schools do their job of teaching our kids.”

In a statement provided to CBC News, the Alberta government said it has no plans to ban flavoured vape products at this time.

“During the consultation to support the Tobacco, Smoking and Vaping Reduction Act, we heard from Albertans that availability of flavours is important to the success of smokers who are seeking a less harmful alternative as a means to quit smoking,” the statement said.

Health Canada said it is examining the issue and recognizes that flavoured products are used by both youth and those trying to quit smoking. Health Canada said information about vape sales and ingredients is being collected to develop policies and regulations.

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