Vaping: Misunderstood, Dangerous

Vaping: Misunderstood, Dangerous

E-CIGARETTE and vaping devices can be hard to detect. Here, a watch is help up against its look-alike, which is actually a vaping device. (Katie Doar photo)

Panelists Urge Parents To Stay Alert, Talk

Parents need to talk to their children about the dangers of e-cigarettes; all kinds of alternative ideas about the habit are at their fingertips, through indispensable smart phones.

For example, Sally Goodquist, the regional coordinator for tobacco control, promised that exploring “#juul” on Instagram would really take you down an internet “rabbit hole.”

“You’ll see all of these memes that young people have created that are really entertaining to them, so now they are basically just doing the social media advertising for the companies for free,” Goodquist said. (A meme, like a cartoon, is a humorous captioned photo that gets spread around the internet).

Goodquist, along with Dr. Laura Kornegay, director of Central Shenandoah Health District, and Hugh Ferguson with the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, participated in a panel discussion last Wednesday sponsored by the Rockbridge Area Prevention Coalition on vaping and how the habit is affecting young people. The discussion was held at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College’s regional center in Buena Vista.

Last year, about 20 percent of high school students nationally said that they had used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days. This year, the number has grown to around 27.5 percent of high school students.

Vaping has proved disproportionately attractive to young people. And sure enough, a team of Stanford researchers shared their study of Juul’s marketing campaign and found that it was “patently youth-oriented.” Juul hired social media influencers — people with a lot of followers — and they created hashtags #juul, #vaporized. The posts were often accompanied by pictures of young people with the devices.

Under public scrutiny, Goodquist said, Juul was pressed to change its messaging to target adult users who wanted to quit smoking, rather than adolescent ones. Although the company fell in line, the damage had already been done, and young people previously affected by the company’s product still continue to vape and use social media, thereby becoming walking advertisements for vaping.

And social media, or peer-advertising, might be the best way to reach young people, Ferguson speculated.

“I think they are coming in contact [with e-cigarettes] like most kids come contact with things they shouldn’t do; it’s peers and word of mouth and now social media.”

Memes from inside the social media #juul internet vortex show, for example, text that reads:

“Me: ‘May I use the bathroom?’

“Teacher: ‘You should’ve gone between classes.’”

Enter a picture of a war-zone, with soldiers running away from a cloud of toxic gas, presumably describing what a school bathroom is like between classes.

The post for the meme (edited for profanity) reads: “Don’t you hate when you walk into the Juul room and there’s just some sick person defecating in the vape seats?”

That’s just one example. Goodquist said that some students really do call the bathroom “the Vape room.”

The advertisement of addictive substances to young people has certainly been seen before, and Ferguson recalled the days when representatives from tobacco companies would come to his high school to pass out fliers and samples. And, back then, there was no need to smoke a secret cigarette in the bathroom between classes.

“When I was in high school,” Ferguson said, “we had smoking lounges for students.”

Now, the dangers of nicotine are fully known, which hamstrings providers. That means that e-cigarette devices, which carry as much nicotine in one pod as a whole pack of cigarettes, needed to create confusion about that fact in order to be successful. Vapes and e-cigarettes have distanced themselves from what is now essentially a symbol for lung cancer: cigarettes.

E-cigarette devices are profiting from this distance. Goodquist, Ferguson and Kornegay all believe that some youths really don’t realize that what they are doing is actually dangerous.

“They just didn’t correlate that from Juuling to smoking,” Ferguson said. “Cause it’s not smoke; it’s vapor.”

Another popular misconception, that e-cigarettes help people quit smoking, also leads to the false logic that e-cigarettes are not as harmful as regular cigarettes. Goodquist said that most people who start vaping to quit smoking aren’t successful; in fact, they just end up being dual users.

These misconceptions, combined with discreet and attractive packaging, make it easy for youth to forget, ignore or remain ignorant of the dangers associated with vaping.

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After the panel discussion, attendees could pursue a display of devices that had been confiscated from around Rockbridge County. All of the vaping tools looked either high-tech or totally ordinary, like an expensive gadget or an everyday ink pen. Young vapers have their pick between vaping with what looks like a flashy toy or something so discreet and familiar-looking that not even the most eagle-eyed mother would think twice about seeing it.

To help lend concerned mothers and fathers an advantage, the Rockbridge Area Prevention Coalition held a “Hidden in Plain Sight” event this past Monday at Rock-bridge County High School, where they recreated a child’s room and planted various drug caches inside of it. Attendees were able to walk through the room and try to spot where the drugs and vapes were hidden.

This may seem extreme, but Ferguson stressed that parents needed to be monitoring their children.

“If you think that they’re possibly getting involved, you have to be suspicious, you have to look,” Ferguson said. “Especially for adults and parents, if it’s your home and your teenage child still lives there, then you have a right to go look around and see what’s going on and have those conversations.”

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This call for increased monitoring by parents is motivated by the mystery illnesses and vaping-related deaths that have been occurring across the country.

As of Oct. 1, there have been 1,080 lung injury cases across the country associated with e-cigarettes and 18 deaths from vaping-related illnesses. Virginia has seen one death and 33 vaping-related cases. Eighty percent of these patients are under 35 years of age. Typically, the patients have been vaping with a product that contains some combination of nicotine and THC. THC is the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that gets the user high.

One of the scariest things about these cases is that you don’t have to be a longtime user in order to stricken with the mystery illness. According to Julia Belluz, a journalist for Vox, “Patients who have come down with the illness have started to experience symptoms anywhere from a few days to several weeks after using e-cigarettes.”

This July, Virginia raised the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old.

Officer Ferguson said he hopes this will help curb the circulation of e-cigarettes at schools.

“We saw a few incidents where there were some older students who had a little side business selling vapes and juuls,” Ferguson said.

Though this might make it harder for students to get e-cigarettes, it may not do much for youths that are already addicted.

Goodquist admitted that there were “not a lot of resources,” for addicted youths, but she did mention a texting service. Youngsters can text “ditchjuul” to 88709, and adults or parents who want to help young people can text “quit” to 2029887550.

Early in the panel, Kornegay warned of the dangerous interaction of vaping with brain development. Until 25, she said, the brain is still growing; it creates connections, or synapses, between brain cells after each memory much faster than an adult brain would in order to keep learning. This is perhaps good for tackling a foreign language and bad for establishing how good dangerous behavior can feel.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s website, addiction, doing something repeatedly, is a form of learning, so young people can get addicted much faster than adults.

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Laurie Allgood, who attended the meeting with her daughter, was especially concerned about young athletes vaping. In Allgood’s view, athletes are role models for other students, and she implied that the three-strike rule at Rockbridge County High School, where athletes caught vaping three times are suspended or kicked off a team, was a bit soft, especially considering that those students are breaking the law in addition to breaking school rules.

She suggested that the School Board should continue to look into ways to keep young people from vaping.

Dr. Phillip Thompson, superintendent of county schools, who was in attendance, expressed sympathy, but also frustration with the situation at large.

“Our No. 1 goal is to educate students,” he said. “When they (teachers and administrators) have to do all of these other things, it’s good for the community, it’s good our kids, but it’s taking away from our primary mission which is to educate the kids.”

Thompson’s comment raised questions about whose responsibility it is to keep students from engaging in harmful behaviors.

Both Ferguson and Kornegay urged parents to talk to their kids.

“Sometimes it does feel like you’re talking to yourself a little bit when you’re talking to a teenager,” Kornegay acknowledged. “But research really does prove that they listen to what you say, no matter how many eyerolls you’re getting.”

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