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Sheldon Marsh (seen here), principal at O’Donel High School in Mount Pearl, N.L., said focused lessons on vaping have helped students understand the health risks.

Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

In a bid to protect their lungs, principal Greg Kenyon is appealing to the stomachs of his high-school students, offering cafeteria credits in exchange for their vaping products.

Since launching the buyback program this school year, he’s collected about 50 vapes – paying as little as $5 and as much as $30 in cafeteria credits.

The unique gambit by Mr. Kenyon, the principal at Revelstoke Secondary School in B.C., is one of the initiatives educators across the country are implementing. They are struggling to curb growing rates of youth vaping, which is happening in school washrooms, hallways and on the sidewalks – and among students as early as in Grade 5. From removing bathroom doors to planning classroom lessons on the dangers of vaping, including nicotine addiction, school administrators say they are looking at ways to prevent and educate young people on health risks, the same way they did with cigarette smoking.

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The number of high school students who vape is rising, according to annual survey data collected from more than 75,000 students in Grades 9 to 12 in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Last year, one in four Ontario students and one-third of those in Alberta and Quebec said they have vaped in the past month. B.C. had the lowest rates, with 19 per cent. A recent Globe and Mail investigation found some vaping companies are advertising e-cigarette flavours that could appeal to young people and paying social-media influencers to promote their products in a way that critics say flouts federal law and targets youth.

“Five years ago, I thought we had it beat [with smoking cigarettes], and now we’re fighting the same battle and, to some extent, not being as successful as we should be because of the addictive nature of vaping,” Mr. Kenyon said.

The idea for a buyback program came in the spring after Mr. Kenyon and his vice-principal found a student vaping in the bathroom. They received support from the district’s superintendent and parent council. A local business sent a cheque for $500. He said he doesn’t give the students nearly what they’re worth and urges them to meet with the public-health nurse or doctor who visit the school once a week.

“You can’t punish them, you need to support them,” he said.

Vaping is more difficult to monitor than cigarettes, because the devices are easily concealable and the cloud of vapour dissipates in seconds. The e-cigarette industry says the devices are meant to be a less harmful alternative to cigarettes for adult smokers, but the small devices that resemble flash drives are seen as cool among young people, and the flavours can be appealing. The long-term health effects of vaping may be unknown, but school administrators are also concerned by its immediate effects: In one B.C. school district earlier this year, administrators had to call ambulances for students experiencing nicotine overdoses on three separate occasions.

Derek Di Blasio, principal at Hammarskjold High School in Thunder Bay, said students are hiding their vape devices in their sweatshirts and vaping in hallways, change rooms and bathrooms – areas he referred to as “hot zones.”

He added: “Many kids who we would never see on the sidewalk before are now out on that sidewalk using vapes, instead of smoking.”

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He and other principals have stepped up supervision of bathrooms. Some even check them hourly.

The principal at a high school in Barrhaven, an Ottawa suburb, advised students and parents in January that the exterior doors of almost all washrooms would be removed to help reduce vaping. Don Murphy, principal at St. Joseph High School, said in an e-mailed statement on Monday that the amount of vaping in washrooms "has significantly decreased” since the change. He stressed that the doors of bathroom stalls were not removed.

Stephanie Higginson, president of the British Columbia School Trustees Association, worries educators are playing a bit of “catch-up” when it comes to educating young people on vaping. Two years ago, when her son was in Grade 5, a classmate brought in a vape device. It led to a conversation at home about the risks of vaping, Ms. Higginson said.

“We’ve seen this movie play itself out with smoking in the past. And so we are trying to be more pro-active than we have been in the past, because we’re smarter now and we know where this is going,” she said.

In a letter to the federal government on Friday, Robin Pilkey, chair of the Toronto District School Board, urged Ottawa take action on vaping, including the removal of flavoured e-cigarette products from the market and provide funding for schools to install vape detectors.

Health Canada has said as part of its education campaign on the risks of vaping, it will have visited some 128 high schools across the country between September and December. The tour engages students with hands-on activities that reinforce messages vaping can cause lung damage, alter teen brain development and lead to nicotine addiction, the agency said.

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In Ontario, vaping is included in the updated health and physical education curriculum for elementary-age students. Even in high school, boards such as the Toronto District School Board, have made it a topic of discussion in health class. Similarly, in Newfoundland and Labrador, a new program has been developed to educate students as young as in Grade 7 on the risks of vaping.

Sheldon Marsh, principal at O’Donel High School in Mount Pearl, N.L., said the focused lessons on vaping have helped students understand the health risks. At one point, Mr. Marsh said he considered removing the exterior doors into bathrooms but opted against it.

“We’re less focused now on the punitive measures and we’re more focused on the education,” Mr. Marsh said.

At the Revelstoke high school, Mr. Kenyon said the buyback program, coupled with linking students with supports, has led some students to quit vaping and others to reduce their exposure.

Natasha Fair, a Grade 11 student, was the first to hand over four of her vapes to Mr. Kenyon for $100 in cafeteria credits. She said she started vaping almost two years ago as a way to quit smoking cigarettes. Ms. Fair said she still uses a vaping device but is receiving help from health professionals to reduce nicotine levels.

“It definitely has made a big difference,” she said of the program. “You can feel the toll on your lungs and your body once you slow down.”

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Health Canada will have visited some 28 high schools across the country between September and December as part of its education campaign on the risks of vaping. In fact, it will be 128 schools.
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