BY ATHENA FOSLER-BRAZIL
Fiddling with his earbuds, one CHS senior admits that he began vaping his freshman year and quickly became addicted. After three years of the habit, he’s trying to quit for the fourth time. It’s hard, but he says he’s only vaping, inhaling nicotine- or THC-infused vapor from a battery-operated electronic device, once every day or two, a drastic reduction from his former daily nicotine consumption.
Stepping into the CHS girls’ bathroom or getting in the back of a friend’s car after school, it is common to detect the faint smell of menthol or mango lingering in the air, a sure sign that someone has been vaping. According to a recent government-funded survey, one in nine high school students reported vaping almost daily, a trend that can be easily observed by anyone paying attention to teenagers.
After the deaths of 15 young adults were linked to a vaping-related lung illness this summer, the Trump administration announced in early September their intention for a ban of flavored electronic cigarettes, leaving only tobacco and mint flavor, in an attempt to curb the rising “epidemic” that seems to be impacting primarily young adults.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of the lung illness include shortness of breath, coughing, vomiting and chest pain. Cases can develop over a number of weeks or a number of days, and the illness is widely considered to be caused by an oil residue from vapor that accumulates in the lungs.
“Smoking and vaping are both equally dangerous in their own separate ways,” says Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Gross, who identifies vaping as a widespread epidemic, one that specifically impacts teenagers and is prevalent at Carmel High School.
In late September, Gross gave a presentation to freshman Health classes about the dangers of vaping, but emphasizes that students won’t simply listen to what he has to say and that they have to come to conclusions on their own.
“It’s really cliché for me to tell you guys, ‘Hey, don’t vape, it’s dangerous,’ so I think it’s important for students to say, ‘I’m gonna make up my own mind,’” Gross explains.
The Trump administration is cracking down on e-cigarettes like Juul and Suorin, two of the most popular brands used by teens to vape nicotine, but the lung illness has also been linked to vape pens used to intake THC. According to WebMD, investigation conducted by the state of New York has found that the lung disease could be linked to a Vitamin E acetate found in black market THC cartridges.
For many teens who vape routinely, it is a matter of curbing a nicotine addiction, a process that some students have described as “super hard” and “not going well.”
“All of my friends have nicotine so there’s literally no way to get away from it,” says the senior boy about the most difficult part of trying to quit. The 17-year-old says that he simply doesn’t like the feeling of vaping anymore, admitting that the recent illnesses in the news have not been his primary concern.
Though investigation into the cause of the illness is still being conducted, health officials are warning young adults not to buy any nicotine or THC products off the streets, refill or tamper with used or empty THC cartridges or nicotine pods.
A 2018 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that 26.7 percent of 12th graders reported vaping within the past month, and 37 percent within the past year. The Trump administration hopes to cut down on teen vaping with a wide-spread ban on flavored e-cigarettes, but whether it will have the intended effect is yet to be seen.
Some high school students aren’t worried at all about health risks and vape due to access and popularity.
“I vape pretty much every day even though I don’t have one, just because all my friends have them and it’s always around,” says another CHS senior boy who describes himself as having a dependency on nicotine rather than an addiction. “It just feels good, and everyone’s doing it. I guess [I vape] kind of to fit in.”
According to health officials, vape products bought on the street pose some of the highest risks, but most teens who vape at CHS get their products from smoke shops and gas stations that sell pods. With the proposed ban on flavored vapes, some students worry that the products will simply be driven out of stores and onto the streets, where there’s a higher risk of counterfeit products and contamination.
“It’s gonna make it really risky,” says a senior girl at Carmel High who has been vaping since freshman year. “It could just make it more dangerous.”
According to this senior, students who look older or have fake IDs buy products for their friends, who pay them before or after. She reports sometimes spending up to $30 every two to three weeks on Juul pods.
One junior girl reports buying her Juul pods on eBay. When her parents found them in the mail, she simply began getting them from her friends with fake IDs.
Purchasing THC products is a different issue, and students who buy cartridges from local dealers often don’t know the origins of the product. If buyers don’t know that the cartridges came directly from a dispensary, there is an increased risk of product contamination.
“I definitely know people who have dealers who just drop off weed, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah I think he grew this, I don’t really know,’” says another senior girl who quit vaping sophomore year. In her experience, purchasing cartridges can often be similar to purchasing marijuana, and students frequently don’t know where things came from.
For some teenagers, the recent sharp rise in lung illnesses linked to vaping is enough to convince them to quit, even as further research into the issue is still being conducted.
“I stopped when I saw the news about people dying from it,” says one senior girl who recently quit Juuling cold-turkey. “I care about my health and I knew that quitting now would be better than later.” For her, it was simply a matter of self-restraint among her friends, a factor which many students report as being one of the most challenging aspects of refraining from vaping. The widespread nature of the fad makes it nearly impossible to avoid in social settings.
“There are people dying because of it,” says the same student. “I’ve never seen a picture of my lungs, but it’s scary to think about.” The 16-year-old has been vaping since eighth grade, and she and her friends have been struggling to quit.
For those with sensitive lungs, vaping only serves to exacerbate the problem.
“I’ve always had mild respiratory problems, so it’s definitely not helping, but I haven’t really been thinking about it,” says a senior who has no immediate plans of quitting.
President Trump’s ban on flavored e-cigarettes is directly targeting minors, as many believe that the enticing flavors of Juul pods and vape liquids are the primary cause of the rise in teen users. But many teenagers have come to the same conclusion.
“I don’t think it will stop anything because if you’re a teenager addicted to nicotine and they take away your favorite flavor—that’s not going to stop you,” the junior explains. “You’ll learn to like mint [flavor] and move on.”