Tri-town works to combat teen vaping

Sep 18, 2019

With over 8,000 fun flavors to choose from, including cotton candy and hot dogs, vaping can seem harmless. But according to Marion Public Health Nurse Kathy Downey, students in the tri-town have complained of massive headaches, trouble breathing and have experienced psychotic breaks. It’s far from harmless, experts say.

Downey said that the issue has “been on the increase hugely in the tri-town,” since January 2018, when teenage usage spiked. She first heard of the issue when school nurses from the high school and middle school started calling her for advice.

Vapes are electronic devices used to deliver nicotine or other substances to the user in the form of water vapor instead of smoke. Vapes are often marketed as a way for smokers to wean themselves off of their unhealthy habit.

Teens are using vaping devices like Juuls and Blus to smoke liquid or solid tobacco, or marijuana which is ground using a grinder, or THC in wax form.

A pod connects to the device itself and expels water vapor, but Downey’s issue is that “it’s scary because what goes into the liquid is not controlled.”

Some of the oils that are in vaping liquids, like vitamin E, can cause lung damage when inhaled. Pods can also increase the quantity of nicotine that students take in. One pod is the equivalent of smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes, and students can go through the pods in as little as an hour and a half.

There are no hard statistics on vaping’s prevalence among teens in the tri-town. A periodic survey in 2015 was conducted before Downey became aware of the issue, and data from a more recent survey last year is still being analyzed. Data from the 2017 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that 20.1 percent of high schoolers had used a vape or e-cigarette in the last 30 days, compared to 6.4 percent for traditional cigarettes. Overall, 41.1 percent had tried vaping at some point.

Downey also said state and national governments have started to take action on the issue. Last week, the state sent an email on pulmonary injuries. On the federal level, the Center for Disease Control released a new policy on vaping last Wednesday.

Downey said she has held two parent information sessions at the police station, and also talked with schools about how to discipline students without taking them out of school too much. “I’m not going to fault the kids for trying every new fad that comes along,” Downey said. Especially when companies sell kid-oriented flavors and take tactics from old tobacco campaigns to market to teens.

But the teen years are crucial for vaping or nicotine use, because addictive behaviors usually set in by age 26. The public health nurse has, however, worked with interns over the summer of 2018 on a youth-driven campaign against vaping.

She said many students report that they vape because it helps them with anxiety. Downey’s impression is that students are vaping both nicotine and marijuana, though if they heavy users typically use nicotine.

Massachusetts law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21, but she said many students lie about their age, buy the devices online, have them shipped to a house where there is no parent there in the afternoon to get it, and buy the pods at local convenience or liquor stores.

Rochester Health Director, Karen Walega, brought the issue up at the Rochester Board of Health meeting last week. “Looking at the regulations, they haven’t done anything in quite some time,” she said about the town. 

Walega said the overall attitude of the board was “we’ll let the state do it.”

Assistant Principal at Old Rochester Regional, Vanessa Harvey, said she became passionate about the issue when working at Freetown-Lakeville Middle School. She invited expert Morissa Vital to give an Open House presentation at ORR targeted to parents. Vital passed around vaping devices to parents, many of whom were surprised at their small size, and “techy” appearance, the expert said.

Harvey said there is a disconnect for students when it comes to vaping. “These teens grew up hearing that smoking is ‘bad for you,’ but I feel that they don’t make the connection between smoking and vaping. When students hear that one Juul pod is the equivalent to the nicotine in one pack of cigarettes, I think many are truly shocked,” Harvey said.

She warns students against using the new technology because of its unknown impacts. “I’ve expressed to my students that the side effects of long-term use haven’t been figured out yet. They’re essentially the test subjects, which is a scary thing,” Harvey said.

So far, she has not had to discipline students for vaping at ORR, but said, “I know that there have been concerns in years past.”

She also expressed concern that students may not realize the habit they are creating with vaping. “My fear is that many teenagers will not realize the harm they’re causing to their own bodies until they have become addicted,” Harvey said.

Gary Linehan, the new dean of students at Old Colony Vocational Technical High School, said he does not know how many students vape, but he said “a lot of students will admit to trying it.”

He mostly hears about vaping from students, “mostly students who are concerned about others. And because they’re tired of going into bathrooms and having it be a cloud of smoke,” (or, in this case, vapor) Linehan explained, adding that buses are another popular vaping spot.

He said that most kids seem to vape with nicotine, explaining that he has seen cartridges for marijuana, but “they don’t come up as much as Juuls,” which are not made for marijuana. 

Linehan believes teen vaping is “not at all to stop smoking. It’s an intro to smoking.” He says most students buy pods in stores or from friends. Unfortunately, he feels that “kids are just not informed, as much as we try to get the word out”

Linehan uses what he calls “restorative justice” to deal with vapers, having them do research on the trend and make a powerpoint   to present to him and the principal. He says that vaping detectors “don’t work as well as advertised,” adding that the best strategy is to “have a presence” and respond immediately to reported vaping.

Old Rochester Regional responds differently to vaping. “When a student is found vaping, it is a suspendable offense,” said Harvey. 

However, the school is adding an online course on the dangers of vaping that students must complete. When asked about installing vaping detectors, Harvey said “We are in the process of discussing different options.”