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A Creative Way to Address the Increase in Electronic Cigarette Use by Teens

An Example from Orange County, California

by Ryan Crowdis and Pamela Luna

Emerging tobacco products such as electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes or e-cigs) and hookahs are quickly gaining popularity among youth. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2011 and 2012, e-cigarette experimentation and use doubled among middle school and high school students. The CDC also reports that 1 in 10 high school students have experimented with e-cigarettes.(1)


Project ALERT has been a substance use awareness program of choice for middle schools throughout Orange County, California. In just over four years, 102 teachers and other professionals have been trained to implement Project ALERT and almost 57,000 students have received the program. Orange County is continuing to use Project ALERT for their latest Tobacco-Use Prevention Education (TUPE) grant that will serve 7 Orange County school districts through June 30, 2017. Ryan Crowdis, TUPE project manager at the Orange County Department of Education states, “We have had a lot of support implementing Project ALERT and it is an extremely valuable part of our prevention strategy.”


In 2013, the county began to see a steady rise in the use of e-cigarettes among youth and they became immediately active on two fronts. First, they developed a presentation that would inform school staff and parents about this emerging trend. At the time, there was little information readily available to the public about the product and its risks. This was a concern not only of those working in the schools but also for those in health and law enforcement agencies. After receiving numerous requests for information on this topic by school and district administration, Stacy Deeble-Reynolds, prevention coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education, contacted the Orange County Health Care Agency and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to develop a presentation so that school staff and parents could learn about this emerging trend. This presentation has been given to over 1,000 school staff and parents in the last 11 months.  “We don’t want students to be continually smoking these devices, then 20 years down the road not be able to do things like play soccer with their kids because they can’t breathe,” says Deeble-Reynolds. Second, they developed a youth awareness and prevention campaign about the potential harmful effects of e-cigarettes and other electronic nicotine delivery devices, targeting students aged 12-17. The Orange County Department of Education again partnered with the Orange County Health Care Agency and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to lead this effort.


The cornerstone of the campaign is the website notsosafe.org which consists of three main sections that present information and resources about e-cigarettes. The heart of the website is a meme(2) generator, located on the home page, which creates eye-catching, informative pictures and statements that can be easily shared via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and email.



The second section, “Vaping Facts” is designed to give readers information on the complex array of issues related to e-cigarette use. The third section provides links to resources that were used to develop the campaign.


The design team conducted focus groups with local middle and high school students and asked them what an effective e-cigarette prevention campaign would include. As the focus groups transpired, program staff learned that many students wanted to know what chemicals were in these products and what concrete information was available about e-cigarettes. A majority of participating students felt the best way to prevent their peers from using e-cigarettes would be to take a lesson from tobacco prevention campaigns and educate youth on what chemicals are found in e-cigarette vapor and how these chemicals may affect your body. The focus groups and key partners worked together to design the Not So Safe e-cigarette prevention campaign and the notsosafe.org website.


Since its launch in May 2014, teachers at middle schools in Orange County have been utilizing the notsosafe.orgwebsite as a way to enhance their tobacco-related Project ALERT lessons. Crowdis notes, “We chose Project ALERT because it has been used in the county for years and has a proven track record. Our team has found it very easy to insert supplemental information about electronic cigarettes into the curriculum.” The most common ways the website has been used within the lessons have been (A) classroom discussions, where teachers share and review the information on the website with students and ask them to do their own research on the topic of e-cigarettes, and (B) student meme generation, where teachers have students create their own memes using the website as a guide. Students can use the chemical names from the website or any of the other chemicals that have been found in e-cigarette vapor.


As e-cigarettes become more popular with youth, Crowdis and colleagues believe this campaign will be important in educating them about the consequences of their use. It will also encourage students and educators to dialogue about related issues and work together to prevent youth from using these devices.



Project ALERT Director's note: This article was written by Ryan Crowdis with editorial assistance from Dr. Pamela Luna. Educators like Ryan Crowdis and other leaders in Orange County, California offer an example of addressing emerging e-cigarette concerns and adapting Project ALERT to meet those needs, while maintaining fidelity to this evidence-based program. Others are encouraged to visit the notsosafe.org website.


(1) Find more information about this cited material on the CDC website.

(2) A meme is a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet.


Teen image courtesy of Fotolia, copyright darkhorse2012. Used by permission. Other images used by permission from notsosafe.org.

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