Vaping phenomenon takes teenage world by storm: E-cigarette usage gaining significant popularity in adolescents

“I wasn’t really drawn to it per se,” a Carmel High School senior recalls of her first experience using an electronic cigarette. “It was more of a peer pressure thing.”

Having used an e-cigarette only twice, the senior reveals that both occasions triggered a stomach ache and a negative response to the smell of artificial flavorings, though she explains that she has been exposed to e-cigarettes several times through others vaping nearby and says that she need not be using to feel a reaction.

“It’s kind of like smoking in that when people are doing it around you, it affects you whether you like it or not,” she comments.

This senior is not at all alone in her experimentation with e-cigarettes. Commonly known as “vaping,” this popularized method of inhaling vaporized liquid has made a serious breakthrough in the social scene, as more teenagers have become drawn to using it, seeing it as a “healthier” alternative to traditional cigarettes and a less toxic way of obtaining the same nicotine-induced headrush.

Essentially, an e-cigarette operates by using a heating device to vaporize a liquid synthesized with nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals, according to WebMD. The trend of increasing teenage consumption has been overwhelming, as the American Lung Association declares that the U.S. Surgeon General found teenage e-cigarette usage to increase by 900 percent between 2011 and 2015.

However, little is known about long-term effects of vaping, and despite the common misconception that e-cigarettes are less dangerous than traditional cigarettes, the American Cancer Society emphasizes that producers of electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS) devices fail to accurately label the ingredients of their products, leaving room for hazardous side effects—not to mention that the nicotine content in each individual device varies significantly and unpredictably.

As CHS nurse Susan Pierszalowski explains, nicotine poses an especially heightened danger to teenagers, whose brains are still very much developing.

“Nicotine is a neurotoxin that can contribute to mental health problems, behavioral problems and actual changes in brain structure,” Pierszalowski says.

And nicotine only barely touches upon the possible health effects, as e-cigarettes are also known to contain well-known carcinogens such as formaldehyde, which also serves as a component of antifreeze, WebMD explains.

Pierszalowski notes that e-cigarettes contain 15 times as much formaldehyde as do traditional cigarettes, as well as trace amounts of propylene glycol, known to contribute to liver damage. She also warns of other possible health risks associated with the practice of vaping, including serious damage to crucial bodily systems which can lead to the development of chronic medical conditions.

“Studies indicate that vaping causes alteration in cardiovascular function, rapid heart rate, rise in blood pressure and narrowing of the coronary arteries,” Pierszalowski says. “Over time, this can cause heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.”

Athletic trainer and Sports Medicine teacher Jay Christensen explains that e-cigarettes are more similar to traditional cigarettes than they may appear.

“Physiologically, they’re not that different, as far as the damage it’s doing to your lungs and to your body, especially as a young adult,” he says.

These risks do not seem to stop many students from using e-cigarettes, as a junior admits to vaping daily as well as an average of three times on campus each week. As this student recalls, she has had a fairly positive response to vaping, having only experienced a good head rush, with very few negative side effects to this point.

The junior makes it clear how easy it is to access e-cigarettes, despite the legal age limit intended to bar minors from purchasing these products.

“I literally just ordered it on eBay,” she recalls. “A baby could honestly obtain a vape.”

Another junior, who began vaping her freshman year, comments that she feels vaping is “okay” because she has yet to experience any negative effects from it, and believes that she will continue to effectively avoid addiction.

“I don’t [really] care,” she suggests. “I don’t think I’m going to get addicted to it.”

Seeing no serious threats associated with vaping, this junior admits that she does not have a particular reason for vaping.

“For me, it all depends on who I’m with,” she explains. “So at this point I’m literally just doing it because why not?”

This school-wide trend is currently being reflected across the United States, and as of late December 2016, a nationwide survey revealed that over one-third of high school students had reported using e-cigarettes at least once, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, as Fox News reported, the Food and Drug Administration officially classified e-cigarettes as tobacco products in August 2016, setting 18 as the age requirement for legal consumption.

With the recent growth in vape’s popularity, CHS teachers have become increasingly aware of it as well. As Christensen recalls, several devices have been left behind in his classroom so far this school year, though he admits that the staff was not notified of any standard protocol for dealing with or disposing of vape until a mass email was sent out Feb. 9 by assistant principal Craig Tuana.

Tuana admits that prior to this school year, the administration had little idea of what the contraptions were or how to identify them.

“If I had looked in a student’s backpack last year, I probably wouldn’t have put it together,” says Tuana, though he is hopeful that now he would be able to correctly identify a vape pen or similar device.

Now that CHS staff can recognize such products, there is a mandated approach to handling them. “My job [now] is to confiscate the paraphernalia, take it to the office and report the student as well,” Christensen says.

According to Tuana, school administration has begun cracking down on vaping devices, having dealt with three to four cases of on-campus vaping since the practice came to the administration’s attention in the fall of 2016, and punishment ranges depending upon the substance used.

Tuana explains that any e-cigarette is considered drug paraphernalia and any student caught with such a device is subject to the standard one-day, in-house suspension, although the suspension can be extended to five days if the nicotine is substituted with marijuana wax.

Christensen admits that the teachers are aware that student vaping occurs far beyond what teachers witness firsthand.

“My conversation with my students is pretty open, and eventually you stop talking about the weather when you’re doing treatments,” says Christensen, suggesting that students have disclosed information regarding vaping outside of school, although off-campus vaping is beyond the jurisdiction of teachers or administrators.

There are several different e-cigarette manufacturers, the most popular of which appears to be JUUL, designed to offer a low-profile vaping device highly resembling a USB port. These devices allow many students to recharge their devices on their school-issued Chromebooks and obtain a fully recharged battery in only an hour’s time.

Tuana reveals, however, that CHS staff is already aware of the students’ ability to charge vaping machines on their Chromebooks and that teachers and administrators know what to look for when it comes to JUUL.

Purely out of my own curiosity, I attempted to investigate the process of purchasing JUUL, and upon checking a box to assure my age, I was led to the official website where I was granted access to a wide variety of illicit materials, despite the fact that I was on my school Chromebook during school hours.

Although I did not actually purchase anything, I was not in any way restricted from accessing products, such as the $34.99 starter kit, which includes one rechargeable device, a USB charger and a one-year warranty.

With no shortage of vape supply or demand, teenagers are given ample opportunity to experiment with this new form of smoking and appear to be getting bolder in terms of using it in school settings. With limited knowledge of its effects, however, teenage consumption is evidently grounds for concern.

-Melissa Pavloff