A student’s athletic career can be cut short.

A high school team’s goals may be put on hold.

And the effects, while still being studied, might last well past the point of graduation.

Co-curricular or athletic code violations are not new. But the number of them that involve the use of electronic cigarettes—also known as vaping—is on the rise since their use has been added to codes in the past five years or so.

As studies show e-cigarettes continue to be the most commonly used tobacco product among middle school and high school students, administrators, including athletic directors, at area schools continue to monitor the situation closely.

“I think you constantly work on educating,” Janesville Craig High athletic director Ben McCormick said. “I encourage our coaches to talk to their players and encourage parents to talk to their kids about making good choices.”

What is vaping?

Vaping, or the use of e-cigarettes, is the use of a handheld electronic device that heats a liquid or oil to generate a vapor that is inhaled by the user.

Those liquids may or may not contain nicotine, as well as THC, the primary active ingredient found in cannabis. While there are tests that can determine what chemicals are included in a certain “e-juice,” such information is not detectable to the naked eye or nose.

E-cigarettes, or vape pens, are also typically easily concealed within a pocket. Some are small enough that they are not easily discernible from being a student’s flash drive.

“They’re so easy to conceal and so readily available,” Walworth Big Foot athletic director Tim Collins said. “From what I understand, you can go on the internet, click a box that says you’re 18 and buy it.

“I’m not sure adults really understand it yet, because there’s a misconception out there that it’s not bad for you, because it’s not real smoke coming out.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ramped up efforts to curb the use of e-cigarettes among minors. Last month, it announced it had levied warning letters and fines to 1,300 retailers that illegally sold e-cigarette products to minors as part of a crackdown amidst “indications that e-cigarette use among youth has hit epidemic proportions.”

The data

According to the FDA’s Youth Tobacco Survey, 2.1 million youths used e-cigarettes in 2017.

Janesville students participated in the statewide Youth Risk Behavior survey in 2017. The anonymous survey indicated 22 percent of students had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, with 4 percent admitting they were using them on a daily basis.

Just 9 percent of students admitted to using cigarettes, 4 percent to using chewing tobacco and 19 percent to drinking alcohol.

“I always caution kids who might say, ‘Well, everybody’s doing it,’” McCormick said. “That’s just not the case. Some of the people, maybe some of the so-called popular kids, are doing it, maybe it seems like everybody’s doing it.

“The data says most kids are not doing it. Is it increasing? Yes, but the vast majority of kids are still making good decisions.”

Those studies and surveys do not break down e-cigarette use among students who participate in sports.

Data from the School District of Janesville may indicate vaping has led to an increase in co-curricular code violations.

The code was updated in 2014 to prohibit the possession and use of e-cigarettes along with all other forms of tobacco or alcohol use. Violations of these rules are designated Class III violations. From the 2011-12 school year through 2014-15, the district reported 20, 10, 21 and 10 Class III violations, respectively. In the three school years since then, the district reported 50, 28 and 32 Class III violations, and seven Class III violations have occurred so far this school year, as of Wednesday.

However, the district’s data did not provide a breakdown of how many of those Class III violations were due to vaping.

“Taking a look at it, I’d say we still have about as many (violations) for tobacco as we do with vapes right now,” McCormick said. “But I do think vapes are more prevalent.”

The fallout

Janesville is certainly not alone in recently updating its code to include vaping.

All area districts’ codes or handbooks prohibit the use of tobacco and drugs, and most of them have updated their rules to specifically address the use of e-cigarettes, even if being used solely with water vapor and not with nicotine or THC.

“At our school, we’ve made the general rule that you cannot possess one, period,” Collins said. “We’ve had them. We caught one because it fell out of their pocket, one that was caught in the bathroom doing it.

“But otherwise, it’s hard to detect. You can tell a smoker just by smelling them when they walk into the room. But these are so tiny and they don’t smell.”

Punishments vary by school district. Most call for first-time violators to miss 20 to 25 percent of one sports season—essentially about two games for a football player or about six for a basketball player.

While The Gazette sports department does not report on specific violations, few, if any, high schools have been completely immune to having a student-athlete coded due to vaping in the past three years.

McCormick said he and other area officials must remain proactive in attempting to curb vaping.

He also said he continues to encourage student-athletes to consider employing a strategy he and his Columbus teammates adopted on their way to a football state championship in 1990.

“It was my sophomore year, and I wasn’t a huge part of it, because we had a lot of good teams, but we won a state championship,” said McCormick, who went on to be part of the University of Wisconsin’s roster, including during the 1993 Rose Bowl season. “But we all got together and decided we weren’t going to break our code, because we knew we were going to be pretty good. We all committed to it.”

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Eric Schmoldt is sports editor of The Gazette. Email him at eschmoldt@gazettextra.com