Pleasant Hill high school seminar sounds alarm on youth vaping
By Lou Fancher
Like other public health threats, the most frightening thing about vaping isn’t what’s known but what’s unknown.
It’s known that the heated “vapor” (actually an aerosol that contains nicotine salts and other toxic chemicals) in e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco devices caused 48 vaping-related deaths nationwide — four in California — and sent more than 2,000 people with lung damage or breathing problems to hospitals in 2019 alone. It’s known that Juul cartridges, used in e-cigarettes originally created as smoking-cessation devices, have stormed into the lives of teenagers in unprecedented numbers.
Surveys and studies have found the use of e-cigarettes by middle and high school students jumped from low, single-digit percentages to 15, 30, 50% and higher after Juul e-cigarettes were introduced in 2015. Juul and similar highly addictive products that have been developed are now sold by 10 major tobacco companies.
Experts report that users of vaping devices are four times more likely than average to become cigarette smokers. Counter claims that e-cigarettes help people quit smoking remain unsubstantiated. Meanwhile, Juul’s valuation skyrocketed from $1.5 million to $35 billion in the four years since its products came on the market.
It’s unknown what the long-term health impacts are of vaping or the environmental costs are of thousands of discarded pens, pods, cartridges, mods, hookahs and puff bars that litter school campuses and urban streets and increasingly flow into waste systems, rivers and oceans. Second-hand vaping, with invisible-to-the-eye chemical droplets lasting on surfaces up to 60 days, pose undefined dangers. Wax pens that may have marijuana with as much as 70% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, come without the drug’s pungent, give-away smell and have untold impact on teens’ developing brains.
On the black market, unregulated products cut with vitamin E — safe to apply to the skin or consume as a supplement — are now suspected to be lethal to inhale. Scientists cannot say what other ingredients may be harmful. In light of these and other ominous facts and statistics, Mount Diablo Unified School District’s Community Speakers Series hosted a program Dec. 11 at College Park High School.
“Vaping and Tobacco Use Prevention” was led by Derrick Kirk, a youth development specialist with the Contra Costa County Office of Education’s Tobacco Use Prevention Education (TUPE) program. Joined by College Park students who serve as tobacco use prevention peer educators at the Pleasant Hill high school, Kirk told the adult audience that middle and high school students’ use of vaping devices tripled from 2011 to 2013.
Kirk said kids gravitate to vape pens because e-cigarettes look and feel too much like real cigarettes, an item they and many adults mistakenly believe to be more dangerous and addictive than vaping devices. The ability to select or customize favorite flavors is seen as adding pizzazz to the pens. Kirk said flavored oils are laced with chemicals that soil clothing if spilled and would be toxic if one were to drink them.
Ignorant of the chemical and heavy metal stew — potentially containing formaldehyde, nickel, lead and copper — kids are tempted by Banana Ice (currently the best-selling puff bar flavor), mint, Beer Can, Candy Crash and hundreds of other sweet or savory flavors. A single pod can have as much nicotine as one to two packs of cigarettes and deliver about 200 puffs. Studies have found that 28% of high school kids who vape do so 20 times per week, inhaling an entire pod or more in seven days.
Kirk relies on the latest research to collect facts used in the TUPE program’s onsite instruction, activities, videos and PowerPoint presentations but counts on students to give him “the culture.” From students, he knows vaping is so commonplace that students no longer try to hide it.
“In classrooms, they blow smoke up their sleeves or into their backpacks,” he said. In science labs, students duck below raised desks to exhale. “They even use Cheetos bags, blowing smoke into the bags — anyone heard of that?” Kirk asked.
Because the vapor smells like its flavoring, not cigarette smoke, it’s hard to distinguish from the sweet scents of body wash, perfumes or hair spray. Unless a teacher sees the actual puff, they have little recourse. When they do catch someone, Saturday intervention school is used.
“The goal isn’t to suspend the student. They’ll just go home and do it more,” he said.
Chronic users or kids selling the products receive more extensive interventions but there’s “no silver bullet,” according to College Park Principal Joseph Alvarez.
Students said adults need to recognize that despite an MDUSD student health survey reporting that 15% of ninth-graders have vaped, they estimate 60 to 80% of their peers have vaped.
“Now kids do it openly in the bathrooms, which means the bathrooms are sometimes closed,” said one student. “It can be your kids, your kids’ friends, it’s not just delinquents. I just want everyone to know that. It’s very important.”
Students said e-cigarette sales are prevalent on Snapchat and other social media platforms and are sold in person by Advanced Placement students, top athletes and “not just trouble causers.” Making it even more difficult for adults to control or detect the problem, the $20-to-$50 devices can resemble stick drives, mechanical pencils, highlighters, key fobs, nail polish or lipstick containers, smart watches and other common items. Kirk and the students said effective interventions follow five key principles:
“You can’t buy a carton of cigarettes online,” he said, “but you can buy these products.”