Mango, cotton candy, cool cucumber, frozen lime drop, peach green tea. They sound like flavors of gum, or the latest Starbucks creation. But they belong to a collection of flavors used for vaping, and one pod of the sweet-tasting vapor, which is popular with Wood River Valley teens, can contain the nicotine equivalent of 40 to 50 cigarettes.
Vaping is a type of smoking that uses a battery-powered electronic device to heat a cartridge of liquid and nicotine and turn it into vapor. It is also commonly referred to as an e-cigarette, though not all e-cigarettes contain nicotine. The modern version was invented in 2003 by a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik as an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes. Since then, it has become a worldwide trend, increasing in popularity among younger people. According to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 percent of high school students report using electronic vapor products in the 30 days before the survey. In Idaho, the number was slightly higher at 25 percent.
Cody Orchard, a health education specialist for the South Central Public Health District in Twin Falls, said 54 percent of all e-cigarette sales in 2017 were Juul products, a leader in the sector. In July, CNBC reported Juul’s dollar sales increased 783 percent in the sales year that ended in June. Though the legal age for vaping is 18, the brand is extremely popular among teens, Orchard said, because it is about the size of a flash drive, making it easy to hide in class and around school property.
“Adults want something easy to hide from their boss, too,” Orchard said. “They can do a quick puff and blow (the vapor) into their shirt. They don’t produce as much smoke either, so that’s another advantage teenagers see to them. The older devices had a huge amount of smoke to them.”
Orchard said there is a misconception that the smoke coming out of e-cigarettes is just water vapor, but if that were the case, it wouldn’t be visible. What makes vaping dangerous is the amount of nicotine present and the chemicals that have been added to the pods in recent years. Orchard said benzoic acid, formaldehyde, and other chemicals that aren’t even known yet are found in Juul and other products. Because the devices were originally a cessation tool—that is, to help people quit smoking—they are not regulated by the FDA.
“It’s still up in the air as far as side effects,” Orchard said, because the practice is so recent. “Basically, these high school kids are going to be our test subjects.”
Blaine County Drug Coalition Program Coordinator Emilee Struss said it is especially harmful for companies like Juul to market the product in a way that appeals to teenagers because young people are more susceptible to addiction due to the fact that their brains are still developing. She said it is a huge problem locally.
“Because it’s a resort town, there is also higher income in this area and it is kind of a high-end kind of drug and [perceived as] a really cool thing,” Struss said. “We’re doing everything we can to try and protect our kids and keep these products out of their hands.”
Shawna Wallace, the school resource officer at Wood River High School, started at the school in February and said she’s written many citations for students who were vaping. The offense is now an infraction rather than a misdemeanor, which allows the school to involve counselors and parents before the situation gets worse.
“Wood River is no different from any high school that’s been battling this problem, and it’s something that just within the last year or two has exploded,” Wallace said.
From an enforcement standpoint, vaping is more difficult to catch, Wallace said, because the smoke and odors don’t linger. And when she can detect an odor, sometimes it’s just a teacher using a Scentsy Warmer, and it smells similarly sweet and fragrant.
“Years ago, I’d write maybe two to three smoking tickets a year,” she said. “In order to catch a kid smoking, you’d catch them in the alley at lunch time or at a football game. They weren’t smoking it in school because they’d easily get caught with the smell and smoke. When I got here in February, there were kids vaping in the classroom, and we were still in a learning phase.”
Since then, Wallace has been working with teachers, administrators and even bus drivers at the school to teach them what signs to look for.
One of the biggest challenges to stopping the trend is social media, according to Orchard, Wallace, and Struss. Like cigarette smoking, vaping is displayed as “cool” on social media outlets, they said.
“On social media we’ve got celebrities being paid a lot of money to smoke these on TV and Instagram and Snapchat,” Struss said. “That’s what these kids are seeing … On YouTube, there’s some pretty big icons that are young, and all they do is smoke these vapes and make money off of them. They get paid by the vaping companies.”
Heading into the fall, Struss said the coalition will continue working on education efforts, and Wallace said she would keep doing her best to educate parents and teachers about the issue.
“It’s not just flavoring and water,” Struss said. “Our community is getting to know that that’s not the case anymore. The other important thing from our perspective is just giving youth the tools they need to be successful … Historically, it doesn’t work to just tell kids a bunch of bad things about drugs. You’ve got to support them and find out why it is that they’re choosing to use.”
TRUE AND FALSE ABOUT VAPING
True: Most of the common vaping devices found in stores and gas stations contain high amounts of nicotine and harmful chemicals, including benzoic acid, propylene glycol, and flavoring chemicals. Cody Orchard, a health education specialist for the South Central Public Health District in Twin Falls, said while some of those ingredients are found in food, just because they’re safe to eat doesn’t mean they are safe to inhale. The chemicals can settle in the lungs and cause conditions such as pneumonia, “wet lung,” and other infections, and nicotine can restrict blood vessels and reduce oxygen to the heart.
False: Vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes.
True: The FDA announced in May that it would delay reviews of e-cigarette products until 2022, when it will retroactively review products on shelves now and products released in the future.
False: Vaping products are regulated by the FDA.
True: While products like Juul are marketed as an “alternative” to cigarettes, they can also be a gateway to cigarettes. Orchard said a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh showed adolescents who vaped were four times more likely to smoke regular cigarettes within 14 months than their counterparts who did not vape. However, Orchard said he doesn’t necessarily discourage adults from using them to try to quit smoking. The problem is with teenagers who would never have started smoking in the first place if not for vaping, he said.
False: Vaping helps teens quit smoking.
True: There have been instances of vaping devices exploding during use, including in Pocatello in 2017, when a man lost seven teeth and received second-degree burns from a vape pen exploding in his face. A man in Florida recently died from an exploding device as well.
Most devices also include a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which is easily plugged into a computer’s USB port. There have been instances of hackers using that port as a means to transfer malware to an unsuspecting user’s computer.