HARWICH – A handful of Monomoy Regional School District parents got a crash course in vaping on Oct. 16, when Kim Slade, a substance abuse prevention manager and vaping expert with the Barnstable County Department of Human Services, offered information on teen vaping that sent any defense of vaporizer use up in smoke.
“From 2017 to 2019 we've seen a 135 percent increase in students vaping,” Slade told parents during an informational discussion and slideshow. “Nicotine is probably one of the most addictive substances that you can be exposed to [so] it's really concerning that we're seeing this change in our trends.”
The school's recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that while one in five youth nationwide report current use of electronic cigarettes, otherwise known as e-cigs or vapes, Monomoy students come in at a slightly higher level of almost one in four.
Through the Parent University, Slade told parents the harsh truths about what's really in vaporizers, how kids often obtain them, and the various products on the market that aid kids in covert vaping.
Vaporizer pods and the refill bottles that often come with the various vaporizers sold at area convenience stores, smoke shops, or online, can contain as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes. The liquid is also infused with diacetyl, a chemical flavoring that has the potential to cause lung disease, cancer-causing agents such as formaldehyde, and heavy metals.
According to the American Cancer Society, there is evidence that nicotine can negatively impact the brain development of teenagers. The problem, said Slade, is that many teens think that all they're inhaling through their vaporizers is flavored water.
“Even when they feel like they're not getting nicotine, they really are,” she said. “And it doesn't take a lot to become addicted.”
Slade told the half dozen parents in attendance that an addiction to nicotine can be formed in as little as two weeks, and the impact on young brains can be lasting.
“Youth brains develop back to front, and are not fully developed until their 20s,” Slade said. “Nicotine primes the brain for future addiction to other substances.”
Slade said a major problem is that students often inhale the entire contents of a vape pod on their way to school, unaware of the amount of nicotine flooding their systems. Often students arrive at school suffering from “nic sick,” or nicotine sickness, which comes with a host of unpleasant symptoms including coughing, shortness of breath, chest pains, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, chills, and weight loss.
Common signs of vaping are cotton mouth, which creates a film on the tongue, nosebleeds, passing on caffeine, and adding more seasoning to foods since vaping blunts the taste buds, making food taste bland. She urged parents to be aware of these signs, as well as the scents of flavored vaporizer liquid, increased coughing, or kids exhaling into their clothes, up a sleeve or down a collar.
What draws young users in, aside from the temporary rush of the nicotine, are the myriad flavors that vape companies use, everything from bubble gum to fruity flavors resembling popular candy brands. Slade said that it doesn't help that all of the major tobacco companies now have a stake in the vaporizer industry. For example, the same company that manufactures Marlboro cigarettes has a stake in producing Juul vaporizers.
To help parents better understand the products their children might be seeing or even using, Slade showed slides of various vaporizers, which included those made to resemble markers, USB stick drives, or highlighters. She also showed parents a $30 sweatshirt that allowed a vape user to conceal the vaporizer in a special pocket, with a hidden hose connected to the hoodie string attached to the vaporizer, allowing users to secretly vape while appearing to chew on the cord.
Slade said there are other vape-concealing items, including a backpack made to resemble popular hydration packs that make it seem as though kids are drinking water when they're actually vaping.
Along with the damage vaping can do directly, Slade told parents that the use of vaporizers can effect others via second- or even third-hand vapor.
“With the aerosols, not only are you getting a coating of this residue on whatever surface there may be in the room you're in, but the aerosol can travel out of the room and into other areas,” Slade said. “When you have a toddler learning to crawl, they're being exposed to these chemicals. We don't have any idea what the long-term effects are. We're exposing children to these chemicals that can have lasting impacts.”
At Monomoy Regional High School, administrators have taken a less punitive and more health-conscious approach to the problem, requiring all students caught vaping or with vaporizers to attend their new Project Connect nicotine cessation program, which meets weekly for almost two months during the school's Jawsome hour.
“It uses evidenced-based methods to help curb nicotine addiction,” said MRHS Assistant Principal Janie Girolamo. “We feel like it’s probably one of the best tools to put into place.”
Girolamo said that initially, because vaporizers can also contain THC, the substance in marijuana that causes the “high,” the school treated vape use and the discovery of vape materials to be a drug infraction. Aware now of the severity of the nicotine vaporizer issue among teens, the school is hoping to help students break the habit through Project Connect.
Slade encouraged parents who are legally allowed to use vaporizers containing nicotine or THC to do so away from their children, who often obtain vaporizers from older siblings or friends able to purchase them, by ordering them online, or even by stealing them from area shops. Though the current statewide four-month ban on vape sales has curbed some purchases, Slade said she's had reports of students selling vape products in school bathrooms or out of their homes.
If parents suspect their children are vaping, Slade advised them to learn everything they can about vaping and its dangers, beginning by visiting mychoicematters.net, a website created to address substance abuse on Cape Cod. She also urged them to listen to their child's reasons for vaping, especially if it's likely the child is addicted, and to talk to children about the dangers of vaping.
“I’m not saying 'You’re an adult that vapes, you’re terrible,'” said Slade. “My goal is to give kids the best possible chance at a healthy future. It’s something that we all have an obligation to do.”
If you or someone you know has a nicotine addiction problem, seek help through your local school guidance office, nurse's office, or by visiting mychoicematters.net.