Protecting Teens from the Vaping Epidemic

Jane Lebak
Issue Date: 
March, 2019
Article Body: 

E-cigarettes. Vapes. Juuls. Promoted initially as a less-dangerous type of smoking, they’ve become their own crisis.
Vaping is the process of inhaling an aerosol to simulate smoking. The vape liquid is aerosolized using a battery-powered vaporizer. Some of these vaporizers, typically shaped like a pen, are called e-cigarettes. More recently the market has seen the rise of juuls, which are the size of USB drives or smaller.
“There’s an epidemic,” says Frances Sullivan, member of the Norfolk Board of Health. “We have to hit it from a lot of different directions.”
According to the Massachusetts Tobacco Cessation and Prevention Program, in a 2015 survey, almost a quarter of Massachusetts high schoolers reported vaping in the past 30 days as compared to 2.6% of adults. Nearly half of Massachusetts high school students had tried vaping, and e-cigarette use was higher among high school students than use of all other tobacco products combined.
As of December 31, 2018, Massachusetts has banned the sale of vaping products to anyone under the age of 21, but teens are still getting access to them.
Sullivan says, “We do know that the nicotine is addictive, and a developing brain should not be seeing this amount--or any amount--of nicotine.”
As with all nicotine products, e-cigarettes are addictive. They also cause heart problems and lung problems, such as a condition known as “popcorn lung.”
Moreover, even when used properly, they can be dangerous, as when a 25-year-old man died on January 27 in Fort Worth after his vape pen exploded and cut into his neck. Many times, they are deliberately used improperly, as with a technique called “dribbling” where the user applies the vape liquid directly to the heat coils in order to inhale a stronger dose.
The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act prevents the manufacture of cigarettes with any flavor other than tobacco or menthol, on the grounds that cupcake-flavored cigarettes would be attractive to minors. Vaping liquid, however, comes in an assortment of flavors, with more on the market every week.
Sullivan says, “We worked so hard to get kids to stop using tobacco products, and suddenly the tobacco industry has developed a product that is just sucking the kids in.”
As with any societal problem, there are two obvious prongs for attack. First, to cut off the supply. And second, to reduce the demand.
Francis Sullivan says of the supply side, “The Board of Health is trying to come at the problem from one direction, which is to ban the sale of these products in convenience marts and retail stores.”
Sullivan invited Dr. Lester Hartman, a pediatrician from Mansfield and Westwood Pediatrics, to speak to the town’s health board. Hartman has worked for the past several years to reduce children’s exposure to tobacco products, lending his expertise to hundreds of Board of Health meetings around the state.
“He called this the worst epidemic that he’s seen in his lifetime when it comes to kids,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also says, “The literature shows that if you can keep these products out of the retail stores, children are less likely to use them.”
Under new regulation proposed by Sullivan, no retailers in town would be allowed to sell e-cigarette and vaping products except for smoke shops or adult-only facilities.
The modification will be presented for discussion at Norfolk’s March Board of Health meeting, and if that vote passes, then a public hearing will follow.
On the demand side, Detective Michelle Palladini, Resource Officer for the King Philip School District and Founder of the LEAP Program, agrees with removing vaping products from retail shelves. “The products have been targeting minors,” she acknowledges. “Banning them sends a positive message that adults don’t condone it.”
But Palladini doesn’t stop there. “We know kids aren’t really going into local convenience stores per se and buying them, especially in their home town where everybody knows each other. They’re going into smoke shops out of town, getting them from older siblings, and buying online.” Therefore banning vapes in Norfolk may benefit teens in neighboring towns as well.
As for confiscating vapes, “They’re too easy to conceal, and the second that cloud of chemical smoke comes out, it virtually dissipates immediately.”
Students who are caught vaping do face strict disciplinary action. King Philip High School’s student handbook outlines a series of penalties for students caught using tobacco products, starting with suspension and parental notification and escalating to police involvement and eventual expulsion. For student athletes, the penalties go even higher. The MIAA’s zero-tolerance policy mandates that a student in violation of their drug policies miss 25% of the season for a first offense, and up to 60% for a second offense.
But because strict penalties are not enough, Palladini’s attack on the vaping epidemic comes through education. “We’re combatting messaging saying this is a safer alternative to smoking. Kids say, ‘It’s not smoking, it’s just a flavor.’” But vapes contain nicotine, and sometimes worse.
Palladini says, “We’re starting to see more and more THC cartridges.”
THC is the psychoactive component of marijuana.
“At King Philip we’ve started a coalition called Healthy KP, created really to look at the range of social and chemical influences that lead to risky behavior. We’ve known for a long time how to manage risky behavior among kids, and we talk to kids about the lies behind risky behavior.”
Healthy KP reaches out to both students and parents. Palladini says, “I do a monthly coffee chat. The October, 2018 coffee chat was about vaping, and the March 25th coffee chat will feature Dr. Hartman. He’s at the forefront of education on this topic from a health perspective.”
The coffee chat will take place at 9:30 a.m. at King Philip Middle School.
For further information on vaping and minors, including talking points and a toolkit for safeguarding minor children, check out Teens interested in reducing vaping among their peers can join, and those trying to break a nicotine habit can visit