A group of Olentangy students is working to combat vaping in district schools -- a problem the students say is even worse than national statistics indicate.

For Olentangy High School seniors Samantha Billy, Josh Gernert, Maggie Powers and JoAnn VanGorder, their investigation of vaping started as a simple class project called "Clearing the Fog."

The four students were working on a public-relations project for their marketing class and quickly came to the conclusion that they should direct their work toward an anti-vaping campaign.

"We had seen the way it had changed some of our friends," Billy said. "Then the FDA stuff came out."

Late last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a report that detailed the first recent increase in tobacco use among students, largely due to a 78 percent increase in students using some type of e-cigarette.

The report indicated that 1.5 million more students used e-cigarettes in 2018 than in 2017, and found that more than 20 percent of high school students used some kind of vaping device.

But the group of Olentangy students didn't need a report to tell them vaping was a problem.

"It was really the biggest issue in our school," VanGorder said.

The group said the use of the Juul brand of e-cigarette, in particular, is rampant at their school and others -- despite the fact that vaping is banned from school grounds and e-cigarettes cannot be legally purchased in Ohio by those younger than 18.

"It's in the bathroom, in the parking lot before or after classes -- even at football games," Powers said. "Some kids will even pull their shirts over their mouths and vape in class."

Since then, the group has worked in a variety of ways to gather information and inform classmates about the dangers of nicotine and vaping.

The students conducted their own survey of 277 classmates, and while they acknowledge it may not be a perfect representation of the school's demographics, they said it provided startling numbers.

According to their survey, more than 53 percent of students they spoke to had tried vaping in some form. About 28 percent said they smoked e-cigarettes at least every week.

"Even the student body agrees this is a problem," Billy said, "but then they say, 'We're not going to stop vaping.' "

One of the group's friends, a 17-year-old student who can't vape legally, let alone on school grounds, is one of those resilient e-cigarette smokers.

The student, who asked that her name not be published, said she's been vaping for about two years. While she isn't completely blind to the repercussions, she said it's simply not something she thinks about.

"It's one of those things where you know what you're doing," she said, "but I haven't seen the consequences firsthand, so I haven't dealt with them."

To tackle that resistance, the group is trying to promote information about the physical effects of vaping and what's in the juice they're inhaling.

The problem, the students said, is that there isn't much information to go around. Vaping is new enough that long-term effects haven't been studied, they said.

But even in the short term, the group has been able to get through to some students by explaining that harmful chemicals can be found in their e-cigarettes. They even brought a Delaware County doctor to school to conduct a lung test.

One high schooler found that his lungs were aged like a 28-year-old, while his non-vaping classmates' lungs looked their age.

"We want to end the 'harmless' reputation around it," Gernert said. "People think it's a healthy alternative to smoking, but we really don't (have enough information to) know."

The group put together an assembly Jan. 11 during which Delaware County Juvenile Court Judge David Hejmanowski spoke about the issue, and they said they hope to take their outreach further, reaching out to school leaders and Delaware County health officials.

They've also convinced a few friends to stop vaping -- which is enough of a win for them.

"Even if it's just one person getting rid of it, that's worth it," Powers said.

aking@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekAndrew