Teenagers have always yearned to be older, to appear cooler, to have more freedom. When once teenagers rolled Marlboro packs in the sleeves of white tee shirts, now they pull hookah pens and electronic cigarettes from their pockets.
These devices vaporize flavored liquid that generally contains nicotine and are similar in appearance to a pen, containing a battery, a vapor chamber, a flavor tank and a colorful body. Some pens require the push of a button to start the heating process that vaporizes the liquid, while others heat the liquid when the user inhales through the mouthpiece.
“Some of these things look like a pen,” CHS assistant principal Martin Enriquez says. “Chances are some of our teachers have seen them before and thought nothing of it.”
Enriquez also points out that many of the devices smell like candy and are aimed to attract young people with liquids flavored like strawberry shortcake, peach mango paradise, tangy apple and melon dew.
Although these devices are flashy and extremely popular, few clinical studies on electronic cigarettes and hookah pens have been done. The FDA’s Division of Pharmaceutical Analysis studied the ingredients found in the cartridges of two leading e-cigarette brands and discovered that one sample “contain[ed] diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze. Several other samples were found to contain carcinogens, including nitrosamines.”
The products are not currently regulated by the FDA, and the amounts of nicotine in each product can vary, so consumers do not actually know how much nicotine they are consuming in one sitting.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding,” school nurse Susan Pierszalowski says. “Teenagers think these things are safe because there is no smoke, just water vapor, but there’s still nicotine and an unknown amount of chemicals being inhaled. Then there’s the question of nicotine itself. When you’re using an e-cigarette or hookah pen it has the same addictive properties as if you were smoking a traditional cigarette.”
Although these devices contain harmful carcinogens, students are not deterred. In a poll of 161 CHS seniors, 62% admitted to having smoked an electronic cigarette or hookah pen. This trend of using electronic hookah pens and e-cigs has been national. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the percent of middle school and high school students using electronic cigarettes has more than doubled from 2011 to 2012.
One CHS senior says, “I think the reason a lot of people like it is because you can do smoke tricks like blowing O’s, you can take them anywhere, they taste really good, they’re super convenient, there’s a bunch of different flavors, and they’re really popular.”
As popularity has increased, students have begun to bring these devices onto campus.
“In the past couple of months the use of hookah pens and electronic cigarettes has increased,” Enriquez observes. “Last year we didn’t have much of an issue. This year, just in the past week or so, we’ve had almost eight or nine suspensions. It’s important that these kids understand that these devices are like cigarettes, and we deal with them like they are cigarettes, and students with them will be suspended for two days.”
Like normal cigarette and hookah smoking, the consumer must be at least 18 years old to buy e-cigs or hookah pens. Of the 161 seniors polled, 22% own an electronic cigarette or hookah pen, and 16% of these users are under 18 years old.
Curious as to how these students obtained their devices, I began asking around and was told that local smoke shops like NorCal Smoke Shop in Monterey would give them to virtually anyone without checking for an ID. I decided to test this theory and went to the smoke shop myself, walked up to the counter and asked for a disposable hookah pen. Although I feared being carded—I am only a 16-year-old junior—the pen slid over the counter no questions asked. I said that I had left my money in the car and promptly left. Evidently, you don’t have to be 18 to obtain one of these devices.
Two sophomores who illegally own hookah pens told me that they have never been carded, and now they buy the pens and sell them to friends of theirs who are too scared to get their own.
“We are seeing a lot of use right now which I am stunned by,” Health teacher Jeff Wright says. “I’m an ex smoker. I’m not proud of it. I understand the addiction to nicotine from the inside. Nicotine is as addictive as heroin is—it’s really hard to quit. I am honestly baffled why students are doing this. It just makes so little sense.”