It’s not uncommon to hear about teens engaging in risky behavior. Smoking and substance use among young adults have made headlines for decades. But what if an activity doesn’t seem as risky as it is?
Such is the case with a new trend in nicotine consumption which allows teens to use products virtually undetected — even in the classroom. Prevalence of the practice pushed leaders in Gunnison schools to issue an e-mail blast to parents notifying them of the rise in popularity of “Juul” vaporizers among students.
“A lot of my friends are doing it,” said one Gunnison High School freshman on lunch break. “It’s pretty common and the flavors are appealing.”
Small and convenient
Vaporizer devices — a method of consumption in which the user inhales vapor rather than smoke — have become popular among teens because they’re small and easy to hide. Juul vaporizers in particular are e-cigarette devices that look like a USB flash drive. They utilize “pods” which deliver nicotine.
Juul reports that one pod contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. Because of the convenient size, youth are able to use the devices while parents and teachers may be unsuspecting, and the vapor release smells like a pleasant fragrance.
While teens who spoke to the Times noted prevalence of the behavior among their peers, only about half said they had tried vaping — and they didn’t like it. Those whose friends do use the devices say they do it for the flavors and buzz they get from the nicotine. Many, they said, admitted doing it because it appears “cool” and because of peer pressure.
Yet, generally these teens are already getting the message about the hazards of Juuling. One student admitted he did not want to lose his GCSAPP Choice Pass — a card that provides discount skiing and other benefits if a student vows to remain substance free. Another said he did not see the trend as being different from anything else that teens try.
“It’s no different than the smoking epidemic of the 1980s,” he said.
‘It’s considered smoking’
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, electronic cigarettes are considered tobacco products in the state — meaning sale to minors is illegal. State statute also makes it illegal for anyone to use an electronic cigarette on school property.
Yet, even when an underage user is caught, it’s difficult for school officials and parents to know what exactly is in the product. Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Project director Kari Commerford offered that teens themselves might not know what’s contained in the pod.
“Any vaporizing product is illegal for anyone under the age of 18,” said Commerford. “It’s considered smoking. It’s considered the equivalent from a legal standpoint, and it’s unhealthy to ingest anything in your lungs.”
Commerford said GCSAPP is still gathering information about Juuling and has some of it on its website. She said the popularity is not only tied to flavoring in the product, but to the “low perceived risk.”
“It’s a misconception that it’s safe,” said Commerford. “From a school standpoint and from the parents, it’s difficult because you’re not sure what’s in there.”
Access and legalities
Since it is illegal for those under 18 to buy vaping products, teens are left to the typical routes of access — such as help from someone who is of legal age to purchase the products. Crested Butte Tobacconist owner John Penn says not at his store.
The Tobacconist is one of two known shops which sell Juul products in the valley. Penn said he makes about $1,000 a week in Juul sales. It’s good business for him as he tries to make a living in a resort town.
But Penn said he’s trying to do his best to keep the product out of the hands of minors. He only sells one Juul device and its prepacked pods at a time. He said he gets “nasty” with his customers if he suspects the product may be resold to minors.
“I know there’s been a lot of trouble with high school kids,” said Penn. “I’ve gotten in the face of people … and tell them straight and simple, ‘If anyone under the age of 18 gets one of my products, I will tell the cops who bought it for them.’"
‘It’s becoming a little bit of an epidemic’
But the products are clearly getting into teens’ hands. Gunnison High School Principal Andy Hanks said he has seen a drastic increase in the number of incidents where students have been caught Juuling. He estimates about 10 teens have been caught using the device in various locations — from classrooms, to bathrooms and even the parking lot.
“It’s scary. It’s becoming a little bit of an epidemic — kids think it’s quick and fun and cool,” Hanks said. “We won’t really know the (health) ramifications until unfortunately 10-20 years when it’s been out for a while. But we know it won’t be positive.”
Hanks said school administrators are in a tough position because when a student is caught vaping, it is unknown what type a product is being used. Newly adopted school board policy treats vaping like smoking, and students caught vaping are subject to possible in-house detention, revocation of privileges and exclusion from extracurricular activities. Repeated violations may result in suspension from school.
“We don’t have the manpower to debate if it’s (flavored) vegetable oil or if it’s marijuana, nicotine or any of those other things,” said Hanks. “We try to work with law enforcement and talk to other school districts about it. I hope it warns parents to be actively involved in these conversations.”
DID YOU KNOW?
> E-cigarettes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, notes the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
> There are e-pipes, e-cigars, large- and medium-size tank devices, rechargeable e-cigarettes and disposables. Most of them have a battery, a heating element and a place to hold a liquid. The liquid is heated into an aerosol that the user inhales.
> The federal Food and Drug Administration offers the following statistics says more than 2 million middle and high school students were current users of e-cigarettes in 2016.
> E-cigarette use rose from 1.5 percent to 16 percent among high school students from 2011 to 2015.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
> The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says besides nicotine, other harmful substances can be inhaled through the use of e-cigarettes, such as cancer-causing chemicals and tiny particles that can reach deep into the lungs.
> Some flavoring, such as diacetyl has been linked to serious lung disease, the CDC notes. Popcorn lung is a respiratory condition in which tiny air sacs within the lungs are scarred.
> Volatile organic compounds, and heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead also can be found in e-cigarette aerosol.
> However, the CDC does state that e-cigarettes are less harmful that the “deadly mix of 7,000 chemicals in smoke from regular cigarettes.”