Article and photos by Olivier Dumont
Vaping and e-cigarette use has increased dramatically throughout New York State. Among high school students alone, the use of non-tobacco vaping devices has soared over the last six years.
“Between 2011 and 2015, there has been a 900 percent increase in the number of high school students vaping,” said Michele Hughes, an expert on vaping abuse who cited Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s 2017 e-cigarette report.
In October 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a ban on e-cigarette use in indoor public spaces that took effect at the end of November. In essence, the law treats vapes and e-cigarettes, which contain nicotine but no tobacco, the same as traditional cigarettes.
But despite the new law, vaping—especially among high-school students—remains an increasing concern throughout New York. Consider Rockland County, just across the Hudson River from Westchester, north of New York City. Parents, teachers and administrators are particularly worried about the availability of a wide array of e-cigarette devices that are targeted at teens and easy to conceal. Rockland also is “considering changing the age to purchase any tobacco product (including vapes) to 21,” according to Hughes. One reason, she adds, is that Orange County, N.Y. and Bergen County, N.J. already have set the minimum age at 21, and “Rockland is seeing a lot of traffic” from young people driving into the county to buy tobacco products, including vaping devices.
A key issue is whether e-cigarette use serves as a viable approach to quitting tobacco. A recent study on smoking-cessation in the United States, published in the British Medical Journal in July and conducted by Prof. Shu-Hong Zhu of the University of California, San Diego, found that cigarette smokers who also used e-cigarettes are far more likely to quit than non-vaping, cigarette smokers. Moreover, cigarette-smoking e-cig users are more likely to quit smoking than cigarette smoking, non-e-cig users. A new survey of e-cigarette research by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that while there is some evidence e-cigarettes can serve as an aid to quitting smoking, e-cig use also substantially increases the risk of transitioning to traditional tobacco products among teens and young adults.
“It was a substitute; it was better for your lungs, no tar,” said Alex Walker, a junior high school student at Nyack High School in Rockland County who says vaping helped him quit smoking.
Hailey Speakman, a senior at Nyack High School, is more skeptical about the new smoking technologies. “I think in one way its better because there’s no tar, but in another way, it’s worse because I don’t know people who could go through packs of cigarettes in days, but I know all of us can go through Juul pods in days.”
Juul pods are cartridges inserted within the Juul; each pod holds 0.7 ml of flavored vapor liquid that contains 5 percent nicotine; ultimately, one pod matches the consumption of one pack of cigarettes, according to juulvapor.com. Despite being a regular cigarette smoker before her transition to Juul vaping, Speakman currently only vapes.
Indeed, nicotine, which can be found in both e-cigarettes and tobacco, is extremely addictive and carries a variety of health risks, especially for adolescents. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, through the Surgeon General’s Report on e-cigarette use among adolescents, found that nicotine negatively impacts the development of the adolescent brain, causing harmful effects on cognition, mood, and concentration. The report also found that nicotine “can disrupt the formation of brain circuits that control attention, learning, and susceptibility to addiction.”
Following the CDC report, the Food and Drug Administration expanded the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act to all tobacco products including e-cigarettes. The rule change was enacted, according to an FDA statement, because the use of vaping had drastically risen among teenage children, “creating a new generation of Americans who are at risk of addiction.”
Since e-cigarettes and vapes have slightly higher levels of nicotine concentration than traditional cigarettes, they too can lead to dependency. And the wide variety of e-cigarette and vape designs make them easy to conceal, said Walker. “It’s almost too easy…and you get really, really addicted,” he said. Like Speakman, Walker cut himself off from smoking cigarettes when he shifted to vaping, particularly once he started noticing the physical toll on his lungs.
However, the dangers of vaping and e-cigarettes are still not broadly understood, according to Michele Hughes, the program coordinator at CANDLE Rockland, a nonprofit that stands for Community Awareness Network for a Drug-Free Life and Environment, in Rockland County. “I think the way vaping is presented to the public is that it is a healthy alternative to smoking and I don’t believe that, all those groups I mentioned, are aware of what the health risks are for someone who vapes,” she said.
Lecturing students is not effective, according to Hughes, who began conducting presentations on vaping to student health classes in one Rockland high school last fall. “We are not going to preach,” she added, noting that the first step to combating the problem is to educate students, parents, teachers and administrators.
In Rockland, teenagers are seen using everything from e-cigs, to smaller vape pens, to the latest hit device, Juul vapes–a vape that resembles the size and structure of a flash drive. “I saw one today that looks like a sharpie pen,” said Hughes, who is also the parent of a high school senior. Others “look like USB sticks” and are not only small and concealable, but also indistinguishable as a vaping device, said Hughes. “They look like everyday items you would not think twice about.”
E-cigarettes and vape use is also spreading to ever younger children. “I have been noticing younger and younger grades that have been using vaping devices,” said Walker. “With the Juul specifically, I’ve seen kids that have it, I see freshmen, I see middle schoolers, it’s just getting younger and younger. This Juul specifically, is an epidemic.”
High school students also have easy access to vapes and e-cigs. “On Amazon, nobody’s checking your age,” said Hughes. “So it’s very, very easy to get and it’s fairly inexpensive.” On Amazon, the price of a Juul ranges from $7.50 to $13; on juulvapor.com, they sell for $35. Hughes said she has even heard of kids vaping in classrooms, with teachers “unaware of what they are doing.”
Some teenagers expressed skepticism that the Cuomo ban will stem the popularity of e-cigarettes among high school students and younger children. “We are already not allowed to be doing this and we’re still doing it, so I don’t think, even if they said there is a law, that we would stop,” said Christine Berlingeri at Nyack High School. Added Walker, “Nothing is going to stop a high schooler.”
Arguably, the consumption of nicotine has just shifted from cigarettes to non-tobacco products. “We don’t smoke nearly as much as other generations did,” said Speakman. “But the amount of nicotine we intake, is probably just the same amount. I really do think it’s going to get huge and I think it’s going to get out of control.”