Wildscapes Workshop

The Vape Debate

E-cigarettes target new generation

Michelle Casas Groogan
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NO TOBACCO BUT NOT SAFE Fruity flavors attract young users. Schools are warning parents about an increased use of e-cigarettes. (Photo: www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/sestovic)

With flavors like mint, mango, fruit medley and crème brulee, it’s no wonder some teens are attracted to vaping, or e-cigarettes. What was supposed to be a less-harmful alternative to smoking is now a growing concern on school campuses, say health and school officials, and middle schools across the city are no exception. This spring, Memorial Middle School administrators sent an email to parents warning about an increased use of e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes come in an array of battery-operated devices with containers filled with liquid that is usually made of nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals. A heating device called an atomizer turns the liquid into vapor that you inhale when you take a drag.

We talked to some teens from Memorial High School and Memorial Middle School. (The Buzz is not using real names to protect the minors’ privacy.) They told us about the newest vaping trend, JUULs, which are less conspicuous and easy to hide.

“JUULs look like USBs. A lot of kids go into the big stall in the bathrooms at school and ‘juul’ in there,” said a 17-year-old Memorial High School student who will be a senior this year. “You can ‘ghost’ the smoke, where you breathe it into your lungs and then there is barely any smoke, so a lot of kids will do it in the classroom, sitting right there at their desk.”

Makers of the JUUL say one pod contains 5 percent nicotine and is approximately equivalent to 1 pack of cigarettes, or 200 puffs. According to the websites ecigone.com and ecigarettereviewed.com, there’s a reason for JUUL’s popularity; it packs a powerful punch. Critics say the pod contains more than 50 mg. of nicotine per ml of e-liquid, more than other types of e-cigarettes, most of which top out at 16 mg. An old-school tobacco cigarette contains about 10-20 mg. of nicotine. The students we talked to said they weren’t currently using JUULs but said they had tried them.

The Food and Drug Administration put in place new regulations last summer banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors (anyone under the age of 18) and requiring e-cigarette companies to submit products for premarket review. Before these regulations, there was no federal oversight of the e-cigarette industry. But the fact remains that e-cigarettes are not hard for teens to access. 

“It’s easy enough that if any of us wanted to start, we could start right now. We could get JUULs and pods right now,” said one MHS senior. “There are some students whose parents order the pods for their kids, and then the kids sell them. If you buy them on the JUUL website they are $15, but kids are selling them for $30 or $40.” 

One 16-year-old MHS student said, “The perception that they are healthier [than tobacco cigarettes] doesn’t really matter. Kids are doing it for the buzz, and it’s easier than a cigarette because you can do it at school. It just smells like hand sanitizer or lip balm.”

Parents are concerned about the designs and flavors that lure young users, and the misconception that vaping is safe because of the absence of tobacco.

“These flavored oils are just a gateway to the next thing,” said one Memorial-area mom of two teens. “First it’s nicotine, and then a little bit more. What’s stopping these kids from using cannabis oil and putting pot in there? And parents have no idea what they’re looking for. It literally could look like some kind of USB drive. And for boys, the pods fit perfectly down in the bottom of their wallet.”

One 16-year-old girl at MHS said, “My friend told me that her dad was driving her car the other day and he told her she left her USB in there. Some people were just putting them in their pocket, but then you could see the outline of it. But now there are pockets in bras, and you can hide it in there. I know a girl who duct taped a pod to her body and another who taped it in her notebook.”

“I have heard of parents noticing their child is going through a lot of cash, or little items are being sold to get cash,” said parent Kim Trimble. “But they’re turning around and using that money to purchase a cartridge in cash. I’ve heard the ‘dealers’ are just other students who don’t know enough about what e-cigs are actually doing to someone, but they know it makes them money.”


JUULS ON CAMPUS Vaping, smoking e-cigarettes, is a growing concern on school campuses. One popular brand, JUUL, looks like a USB drive and contains a large amount of nicotine. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

There’s nothing innocuous about e-cigarettes, says Bellaire pediatrician Dr. Janet Pate. She says, for a non-smoker, they could lead to getting hooked on a habit that’s known to cause lung disease and cancer. She says other health maladies are popping up in vaping teens, like smoker’s cough, mouth sores and wounds that won’t heal. Dr. Pate has written an article posted on her website about another possible problem called popcorn lung.

“The flavoring components of vapes have been studied in other situations and are known to cause permanent damage to lungs in people who work at microwave popcorn factories,” said Dr. Pate. “The permanent lung damage is bronchiolitis obliterans and is commonly called popcorn lungs as a result of flavoring chemicals inhaled at the popcorn factory.”

She warns of other risks as well. “Even though some vapes might have very little nicotine, they all have a chemical known as humectants, the substance that holds moisture and creates a visible vapor when heated on the atomizer. The humectants used are propylene glycol, glycerol and ethylene glycol. When heated, they can give off a by-product chemical called formaldehyde, which is used to preserve cadaver tissue for medical study. The amount of this chemical depends on how hot the atomizer reaches.”

And then there’s the danger of nicotine poisoning.

“The nicotine content in a single JUUL is enough to kill a toddler who drinks the colorful, sweet-tasting fluid,” said Dr. Pate. “In fact, the FDA began working on regulations following the death of one child who drank the flavorful liquid.”

A 14-year-old student at Memorial Middle school who will be an eighth grader this year said she thinks she got nicotine poisoning from accidentally swallowing just a little bit of juice.

“There was too much nicotine in the JUUL I was using,” she said. “I only did it twice, and I couldn’t stop throwing up. Plus I got a little bit in my mouth. You can tell when it’s in your mouth; it kind of burns.”

While the JUUL cartridge can be mistaken for a USB, there are other signs to look for. The pods come in foil-lined packs that can look like a pack of gum. Parents say they have found these packs in trashcans in their teenager’s room. Another warning sign is a fruity aroma, unfamiliar handheld gadgets, increased thirstiness, batteries and chargers. A 16-year-old boy at MHS says parents should look out for unusual behavior.

“I would say one of the reasons my parents got a little worried was the amount of time I would spend alone just sitting in my room vaping,” said the junior. “I would stay up there for an hour and a half and not come down and talk to anyone but that wasn’t normal for me. They would come check on me, but I would say I’m just watching Netflix or reading.”

The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General says the use of e-cigarettes has grown dramatically in the last five years. Today, more high school students use e-cigarettes than regular cigarettes, and the use of e-cigarettes is higher among high school students than adults.

The Surgeon General and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office on Smoking and Health created a website to explain the risks. Even breathing e-cigarette aerosol that someone else has exhaled poses potential health risks, it says. Besides increasing the possibility of addiction and long-term harm to brain development and respiratory health, e-cigarette use is associated with the use of other tobacco products that can do more damage to the body.

The website also includes a parent tip sheet, just in case your kid wants to know, “What’s the big deal?”

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