E-cigarettes and other vaping products have smoked past traditional cigarettes as the main topic of conversation during tobacco-prevention talks in New Jersey schools.

Prevention experts and school faculty are just following the numbers. According to the latest youth tobacco survey, 9.6 percent of New Jersey youth are using e-cigs — more than double the rate of youth reporting the usage of traditional cigarettes.

"It's a hot-button topic right now and we have to be proactive in trying to educate our students before they get too addicted," said Joan Stewart, student assistance counselor at Mahwah High School. "It's disturbing to have to say, but the tobacco industry needed to replace their consumers."

Stewart also serves as adviser for the school's REBEL (Reaching Everyone By Exposing Lies) chapter, an anti-tobacco club in which students teach other students about the dangers of tobacco and addiction.

"E-cigarettes have left cigarettes in the dust," said Stewart, noting that flavors like cherry and mint further miseducate students into thinking they're only inhaling juice.

Several school districts in the Garden State have added electronic smoking devices to their on-campus tobacco bans.

According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, more evidence is needed to determine whether e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes. The agency claims the "new technology" can offer both benefits and risks — one of those risks being children experimenting with e-cigarettes, becoming addicted to nicotine and depending largely on tobacco products for the long term.

"While there are some e-liquids that are nicotine free, you really have to search for them," said Cathy Butler-Witt with the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative, which is operating the grant-funded program "Don't Get Vaped In" that educates students, as well as their parents and teachers, about the hazards of vaping.

Their in-class presentations use interactive tools to keep kids engaged in the lessons.

While the state establishes broad standards for what students should learn in each grade, it's up to local school districts to decide on their health-education curriculum and how vaping and e-cigarettes would work into the conversation, the Department of Education said.

But just spewing facts and implementing scare tactics is not the right approach these days to get a message across to children, according to Judy LoBianco, supervisor of health and physical education for Livingston Public Schools.

Health education must take a skill-based approach, she said, to teach students how to find valid and reliable information on the subject — and not just believe everything they read — and how to deny peer pressure.

"It's an art to be able to say the word 'no' to somebody," LoBianco said. "Refusal's difficult because you want to keep your friends, you don't want to hurt anybody's feelings."

LoBianco, who also leads SHAPE America, the national organization for health and phys-ed teachers, said schools need to do away with the "old stereotypes of health education" and work to better engage today's students.

"No longer can we tolerate letting a health teacher pop in a three-day movie and kids are falling asleep in the back of the room and they're not learning anything," she said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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