Vaping Epidemic Causes National Concern

Lauren Cincotta, News Editor

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Poster designed by Laila Duffy

When e-cigarettes first came out, they were marketed as a safe alternative for adult smokers. Then, the products became popular among young people, prompting warnings about a new generation hooked on nicotine. Even though the full health impacts weren’t known, young people continued to use vaping products. Over the summer, the first deaths due to vaping were reported. Otherwise healthy young adults were suffering lung damage that in some cases proved deadly. 

On September 24, Governor Charlie Baker declared a public health emergency and temporarily banned the sale of electronic cigarettes in the state of Massachusetts. The ban prohibits the sale of vaping products until January 25 2020. The purpose of this public health emergency is to temporarily pause all sales of vaping products so that we can work with our medical experts to identify what is making people sick and how to better regulate these products to protect the health of our residents,” said Governor Baker when the ban was announced. The ban took effect immediately and is the first of its kind in the nation. Michigan banned all flavored vaping products and New York banned most sales of flavored products earlier in September. The New York  ban was later blocked by a judge. The Massachusetts ban has prompted lawsuits from owners of vape shops in the state because entire shops have been forced to shut down. 

Prior to this ban, WSHS implemented new policies to curb vaping among students. Students who are caught vaping will have to go through a three lunch diversion program with SRO Officer Mattina. The vaping devices will also be tested.  If found to contain THC, a chemical in marijuana, then it is a drug offense and the appropriate action will be taken per the student handbook. Otherwise, any subsequent offenses are punishable by fines. There is significant emphasis on educating students about the dangers of vaping. “We are exploring how to help kids quit, and how to help addicted students,” added Officer Mattina. 

Concerning the policy changes, many feel that this is a step in the right direction. “The protections are in place because the dangers are so severe. This is not to be taken lightly,” said health teacher Ms. Barnicle. As a clearer picture on just how dangerous vaping is emerges, the CDC is investigating the dangers of vaping on the public. What they have found so far is that the effects are the same no matter how long someone has been vaping or how old they are.

 In fact, according to the CDC, 67% of people who have been hospitalized are ages 18-34. Some of the people who have died due to lung damage only started vaping a few months before the sudden onset of symptoms. The side effects of vaping include coughing, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and fatigue. The lung injuries are characterized by pneumonia-like symptoms, coughing, chest pain, fever, fatigue, and in some cases vomiting. Hundreds of otherwise healthy young adults have been hospitalized across the U.S due to this lung damage which experts say looks less like a standard infection, and more like an injury due to exposure to a chemical. Just what chemical, experts aren’t sure. 

Urgent research has begun with the goal of determining the cause, but for many this is confirming what they knew all along. Vaping is just as dangerous as smoking regular cigarettes. For years, e-cigarette companies have been advertising it as a way out, when in reality vaping gives people a higher concentration of nicotine, making them get addicted faster. This increased nicotine addiction has proven to lead to increased smoking of traditional cigarettes among people who never would have started smoking in the first place. 

Using these products highly increases the chances of someone becoming hooked on nicotine, which is a difficult addiction to overcome. As consumers develop a more intense nicotine addiction, buying Juul pods becomes too expensive. Many then turn to traditional cigarettes because it is more cost effective.  According to Truth Initiative, one Juul pod contains about as much nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes. These companies also marketed their products to young people, and added flavors to entice them to try. Only recently have there been some regulation and rollback on ads for electronic cigarettes to minors.  

Outrage is widespread, from parents, to doctors, to public officials. There have been many changes to advertising policies concerning minors. Major e-cigarette companies are moving advertising away from young people.  Some cities, like San Francisco are banning the sale of e- cigarettes completely. While Massachusetts has taken the strictest action, some other states have placed bans on flavored vaping products. President Trump has recently called for a national ban on the sale of these products but it is unclear how such a ban would work. Some also worry about the possibility of a black market emerging for unregulated vaping products. Unregulated products could potentially contain more unknown chemicals, which could prove to be more dangerous. 

As it currently stands, at least 18  people have died from a mysterious illness with usage of vaping products being the only common link. It seems that the number of fatalities increases everyday, as more health departments across the country open investigations. There are more than 500 cases of lung illness nationwide.  Early results suggest that there might be a link between THC vaping products, containing the compound Vitamin E acetate and those who experience the lung illness. Results also show that lung damage equivalent to that found by people who have smoked for decades is showing up in patients under twenty-five. Due to the sudden intensity of these cases, companies like Juul labs have come under fire for their part in creating the youth vaping epidemic. The FDA warned Juul that the company cannot continue to market their product as a safe alternative to smoking. On September 25, the CEO of Juul labs stepped down and the company announced that they were going to stop advertising in the U.S. 

 Several groups are working to determine the specific cause of the lung illnesses and deaths. Lawsuits against e-cigarette companies aim to hold them accountable for their past claims and advertising practices. Federal prosecutors in California have opened a criminal investigation against the company to hold them accountable for creating the public safety crisis.   But on the front lines, are parents and educators who face these problems every day. Schools have had to enhance their resources to help students who are addicted to nicotine due to vaping. WSHS offers counseling and other support resources for students who need it. Ms. Barnicle added that including information about vaping in the health class curriculum gives students the information they need to make healthy choices. “Providing accurate information for students so they can make healthy choices is important,” she said. 

Teaching students the consequences of vaping, both on their health and legal consequences is thought to be one of the best methods of prevention. In some cases, prevention is not enough, and students start to use the products anyway. As more information is uncovered and bans are increased, schools have to keep their policies as updated as possible. One of the most difficult tasks is making sure students make healthy choices.  According to Vice Principal Mr. Girardin, “These products are so easily available, it can be hard to keep up with.”

For students that do want to quit and need resources to do so, there are many available. In a recent email sent to all students at WSHS, several resources were suggested for students who need support. Among those included were some online options, including quitSTART, an app with resources to help track progress, manage cravings, and provide encouragement. Text support programs are also available. The email also urged those who need it to seek help from a trusted adult, teacher, or doctor in person to help them quit.