Seeing through the vapor

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SODA members Saysha Schoulte, Macie Weigand, Hope Guyer and Tyler Trappe recently shared their thoughts on the e-cigarette trend. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

The most popular e-cigarettes, JUULs, closely resemble flash drives and can be charged in USB ports. (Stock photo)

Local teens offer insight into e-cigarette trend

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

“They’re here, they’re easy to hide, people are using them and kids are addicted to them.”

They are e-cigarettes. And, as prevention coordinator for Substance Abuse Services for Clayton County, Adam Sadewasser has seen them become the latest substance abuse trend among area teens.

But it’s not just a local problem. Nationwide, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) estimates 3.62 million middle and high school students are current e-cigarette users. In the past year alone, use among high schoolers has jumped 78 percent, from just over 11 percent to 21 percent.

Technically known as electronic nicotine delivery systems, or ENDS, e-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat up liquids typically containing nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals to create an aerosol or vapor that is inhaled. Because they remove the tar and other carcinogens found in combustible cigarettes, e-cigs are often touted as safer—and a way to help adults quit smoking. 

But thanks to savvy marketing, their sophisticated appearance and easy availability, they’ve also found their way into the hands of teenagers, most of whom weren’t previous smokers. 

“They’re a lot sleeker and look better [than normal cigarettes],” explained Hope Guyer, who’s part of the MFL MarMac group Students Opposed to Drugs and Alcohol (SODA), which is trying to raise awareness of and combat e-cigarette use.

The most popular e-cigarettes, JUULs, closely resemble flash drives and can be charged in USB ports. Parents and teachers can see them without knowing what they truly are.

“You can hide it right away,” Guyer noted. “All kids have to do is go to the bathroom and do it. They could walk around and find somewhere that’s a little bit secluded.”

“People will ask to go to the bathroom, but they won’t go to the bathroom. They’ll just go and JUUL,” added SODA member Saysha Schoulte. “It’s so easy to do in the parking lot too.” 

SODA members believe smoking e-cigarettes, or vaping, has become a more common teenage vice than underage drinking.

“Vape you can bring anywhere,” Schoulte said. “Alcohol you can’t without getting caught.”

Even though, like other tobacco products, e-cigarettes are prohibited at school, people still find loopholes, said SODA member Macie Weigand.

“Unless you have a teacher everywhere or a bathroom monitor, you’re not going to get around it,” she quipped.

In addition to their design, e-cigarettes are also difficult to detect because they don’t leave behind lingering smoke. People vape fruity and minty flavors.

“Even at home, people can just vape in their rooms and their parents won’t notice because there’s no smoke smell,” Schoulte said.

Because of these tempting  flavors, teens often view e-cigs as “safer.” They don’t associate JUULs with regular cigarettes because they don’t see the flame and combustion, Guyer stated.

Sadewasser said the vapor or aerosol is not abrasive, taking away the coughing and gagging caused by regular cigarettes.

“People were like, ‘it’s just for the flavor and doing tricks with the smoke,’” shared SODA member Tyler Trappe, “but they’re now actually addicted to that nicotine. I know someone who said they didn’t use a JUUL for like a week and, then, when they used it, they got a little buzz off it.”

SODA member Lauren Gillitzer felt e-cigarette companies created these flavors to suck teens in. Through social media like Snapchat and Instagram, “they create a bigger urge or desire to have a JUUL.”

“Creators of these vape products know exactly how to target young individuals and raise profit,” she said.

Another SODA member, Breanna Knickerbocker, said some students even possess social media accounts that are sponsored by vaping companies who send them different products in the mail.

But the MFL MarMac students agreed that, like other illegal substances, e-cigarette use is more a product of peer pressure than anything else.

“It’s a popularity thing,” Schoulte explained. “As soon as one person starts doing it, that whole group does it.”

“It’s a social thing,” added Weigand. “One person will have it and they’ll share it.”

The students said part of vaping’s rise is also the ease at which people can access materials. As Knickerbocker shared, teens can get them through social media sources, as well as online, directly from the companies or websites like Amazon.

E-cigarette products are also available at vape shops and convenience stores. All it takes is for an 18 or 19 year old to purchase the items and distribute them to underage teens.

“They could just talk to somebody who’s 18 and give them some money. They’ll go into a gas station and it’s right there. Then, five minutes later, they’ll have it,” Guyer said.

Weigand thinks e-cig companies rely on this.

“They know, if they can get it into the hands of 18 and 19 year olds, that 17 and 16 year olds still hang around that age, that an 18 year old will buy the 17 year old the JUUL and it will continue to roll down. They know they can continue to sell their product,” she stressed.

This can be difficult for older teens who don’t want to take part in vape culture.

“As soon as you turn 18, everyone just bombards you and asks you to buy supplies for them,” Schoulte said.

Price is another factor: e-cig products are not largely cost-prohibitive.

“JUUL is just so cheap,” said Guyer. “It’s like $20 for a starter kit.”

Although admittedly a problem, the SODA members said e-cig use isn’t necessarily growing at MFL MarMac. Of those who use, most tend to vape in a social setting, not all the time.

“If they’re around other people, they’ll do it. If they’re not around those people, then I don’t think they would just do it as a habit,” Guyer stated. “But it really depends on how addicted that person is.”

Schoulte said she knows of some students who are addicted.

“They have been doing it away from friends,” she remarked. “I know some people who went through four [JUUL] pods a day.”

To put that into perspective, vaping one JUUL liquid pod is equivalent to smoking one pack of cigarettes.

MFL MarMac’s SODA group is 70 members strong, accounting for roughly one-fourth of the student body. Schoulte said it helps to have that network.

“You know, if you go hang out with those people, they won’t do those bad things,” she said. “You know you can trust them.”

Knickerbocker said SODA shares information with both middle and high school students about vaping products and the harm they can do to people’s bodies. 

Though not all vaping liquids have nicotine in them, some of the chemicals and flavors people vape are still carcinogens, Weigand noted. Doctors have linked a chemical called diacetyl to a condition called popcorn lung, which is the scarring and obstruction of airways in the lungs.

“Some kids won’t even blow the vapor back out,” Weigand continued. “They’ll hold it all in. Then you can get bronchitis from that because it gets fluid on your lungs.”

The problem, said Sadewasser, the prevention coordinator, is that the long-term effects of vaping are still relatively unknown.

“Look at it how people looked at cigarettes in the 1940s and 1950s,” he said. “People smoked them because they had no idea what would happen. It’s better not to risk it.”

Sadewasser also does presentations at schools, and is appreciative of SODA for aiding those efforts.

“I can go to every school and talk until I’m blue in the face,” he said, “but if you don’t have peers to pressure you in a positive way, I mean nothing.”

The SODA members believe more could be done.

Guyer would like retailers to better identify people who are frequently buying larger quantities of vaping products. 

“Maybe they should see a pattern, that this person is obviously buying [for underage users],” she explained.

“At a state level, I would like to see the possibility of increasing the legal age of purchasing such items from 18 to 21,” Gillitzer shared. “I think this could have an impact on the older providers.”

Schoulte advocated for a cap on the amount of vaping materials you can purchase at one time, much like the sale of suphedrine was limited when methamphetamine use exploded.

In November, after public pressure, JUUL scaled back its social media reach and announced it would discontinue selling flavored pods in stores. However, those items will still be available on their website to those who are 21 or older.

“But there’s always a way around to cheat the system,” Trappe confided.

He said the key is educating parents.

“There are parents out there who will probably buy JUUL pods for their kids because they don’t know the whole story, or maybe they smoke cigarettes themselves and they think, ‘it never harmed me,’” Trappe continued. But mostly, “parents are gullible. I think they trust their kids way too much.”

Gillitzer admitted, sometimes, preaching to students and laying out the facts just doesn’t work. It’s ultimately the individual’s decision whether or not to engage in the behavior. And it’s their decision whether they want to quit once they’ve started.

“As adults, where we’re trying to prevent it and combat it and have consequences for it, we realize it’s highly addictive,” explained SODA adviser Jackie McGeough. “So we need to reach out to those who are addicted and help them. “

“Offer more rehabilitation rather than ‘just say no,’” Guyer commented. “Put up more posters for Iowa Quit Line and offer them a space where they can talk about it.”

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