A recent surge in electronic cigarette use among teenagers has prompted calls for stricter regulations to combat what officials are calling an epidemic.
According to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) survey conducted this year, one in five middle- and high-school-aged students reported using e-cigarettes—more than double the amount reported in 2017. A California Department of Justice press release specified that of the five million teenagers ever to use “e-cigs,” three million did so for the first time over the past two years.
E-cigarettes function by electronically heating nicotine-containing liquid called “juice,” which can then inhaled as a vapor. Juice containing cannabis derivatives like the psychoactive tetrahydrocannibidol (THC), is also commonly consumed by the same method, called “vaping.” In California, more teenagers use e-cigs containing cannabis than nicotine, at 14.7 and 10.9 percent respectively.
Unlike traditional cigarette and marijuana smoke, the vapor from e-cigs can be difficult to recognize and detect. Juice, which is often flavored, can produce a variety of scents, like mint, vanilla or even popcorn, although users can inhale selectively and take other precautions while exhaling to mask smells.
Vaporizers themselves can vary in size, shape and design, depending on type and brand, and adults can have trouble identifying them for what they are, Sleek, nondescript e-cigarettes like JUUL, a popular model among teenagers, are designed so that they don’t stand out; the JUUL, which charges by USB port, is easily mistaken for a flash drive.
Although e-cigarettes are marketed as less risky alternatives to cigarettes, debate over the relative safety of vaping products continues. The CDC has linked vaping to over 2000 cases of lung disease, 42 of which were fatal. For comparison, cigarettes cause 480,000 deaths each year.
Long-term health effects caused by vaping are still uncertain, but e-cigs do cause immediate damage to physical and mental health. E-juice can increase the likelihood of nicotine dependency, as users can increase the purchase liquid with extremely high nicotine content. Flavored liquids not only cause severe damage to the lungs, they have the potential to appeal to younger markets.
The Yolo County Office of Education reports that high levels of nicotine use associated with e-cigarettes can damage the heart and lungs, as well as cause headaches and nausea. Nicotine disrupts normal development in teens, and can result in behavioral changes like mood swings, irritability, anxiety and impulsivity.
Because vapes are so easily concealed, it’s difficult to know exactly how prevalent e-cigarette use is among Winters students.
The best indicator of an upswing in use has been an increase in the number of students caught with vaping products at Winter High School—8-10 this year. Superintendent Todd Cutler said those students probably represent only a small percentage of the total using e-cigs at school.
“It’s hard to actually say if it’s gotten better or worse,” Cutler said. “Vaping is very difficult to catch and identify. Often times you won’t see smoke. Companies are selling these tools where kids can smoke from the drawstring of their hoodies.”
Cutler said parents need be vigilant and may have to prioritize their teen’s health over his or her privacy. “My biggest recommendation is to know the signs, but also have an open dialogue with your students about it,” he said.
Becoming aware of the signs, such as the presence of mood swings, fruit-flavored scents, strange electronic devices or e-liquid droppers, can help parents begin a conversation with their teens, and potentially catch problems sooner, or avoid them all together.
“Every parent with a middle- or high-school-aged child should be talking with their kids about the dangers of vaping.”The increased popularity of e-cigarettes doesn’t necessarily reflect an increase in overall tobacco use. In California and other states where the legal age to buy tobacco is 21, underage teens have been switching to e-cigs, which are more accessible. According to the California Department of Public Health high-school e-cig use rose 27-percent between 2016 and 2018. However, 80 percent of the nicotine California high schoolers consume is through vaping devices.
WHS Principal John Barsotti said the fact that e-cigarettes are easy to get and to conceal means a broader approach is needed: one that creates an atmosphere that helps students make better choices.
“The first thing is always to see how we can help,” Barsotti said. “When you shine the light on something, people can make better decisions. I would encourage families to talk to their students about the dangers. In absence of discussion, people are more likely to make poor decisions.”