Vaping and substance use in Kentucky schools has spiked in the last five years, especially in the younger grades; up 147% overall

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The number of drug, alcohol and tobacco events recorded by schools have increased in schools at all levels across Kentucky, according to data collected by Infinite Campus, an online student information tracking system.

A look at the data from 2017-28 through 2022-23 found that Kentucky’s elementary schools saw a 475% increase in drug, alcohol and tobacco events, from 140 events to 805. Kentucky middle schools saw a 281% jump, from 2,336 to 8,912. High schools saw a 107% increase, from 8,995 to 18,651.

“The biggest increases are with the younger students. So it tells us like forecasting ahead, what we need to be thinking about as we develop the guidance that goes around this,” said Florence Chang, with the Kentucky Department of Education‘s Division of Student Success. “Parallel with this, it would be irresponsible to not also mention that correlated and associated with the increase in substance abuse and vaping that there’s also been this increase in psychological distress.”

The data were shared at an April 24 Education Department Student Advisory Council meeting, where students discussed the increase in substance use and what they thought were reasons for it. One said that the real vaping numbers are likely higher because many incidents or events are not recorded.


Information from the latest Kentucky Incentives for Prevention survey shows an association between serious psychological distress and substance abuse. The study found that students who experienced and reported having psychological stress were 2.5 times more likely to vape, 2.5 times more likely to use cannabis, 2.2 times more likely to binge drink and 3 times more likely to use cigarettes.

The students suggested several reasons beyond psychological distress for the increase in vaping, including peer pressure, an increase in the use of social media among elementary students, and easy accessibility to the products.

Another student suggested it was a learned behavior. “We see a lot of adults in our lives, said Ava Benson, a senior at Henderson County High School. “They’ve had a rough day at work, so they’re going to have a glass of wine or they smoke cigarettes because of stress.”

Judi Vanderhaar of the Education Department’s Division of Student Success said the department’s recommendations for districts and schools include implementing prevention efforts, supportive responses for students and updating school policies.

During its recent session, the General Assembly passed House Bill 142, which requires school districts to adopt specific policies that penalize students for possession of “alternative nicotine products, tobacco products or vapor products” and report nicotine-related incidents to the Education Department. Senate language, adopted by the House, allows schools and governing bodies to apply for grants related to nicotine usage and remove the requirement that schools suspend students with a third possession violation.

London police told Phil Pendleton of WKYT that they have been called to schools to investigate serious situations because of vaping. “We have had several instances where EMS was called to schools, and it came out as an overdose, but it turned out it was more to do with vaping,” London Officer Hobie Daugherty told Pendleton.

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