Sarah answered the question quickly and emphatically: “No, I don’t vape, and I don’t plan to start. I see too many kids in my high school who are addicted to JUULs. They vape any way they can — in the bathroom, outside, even in class, when they hide the device up their sleeve.”
Sarah (not her real name) was among eight students who spoke during one of two recent meetings held at Hilton Head Christian Academy and May River High School on the health risks of e-cigarettes.
Unlike traditional cigarettes, which produce smoke from burning tobacco, vape pens electronically heat “e-liquid” or “e-juice” — a nicotine-laced liquid that also contains flavoring, chemicals and metals — until it forms an aerosol with high concentrations of nicotine. This aerosol or vapor is then inhaled by the user. These e-cigarettes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavors — more than 15,000 flavors are currently available, and more are being added.
Because these vape pens don’t look or taste like regular cigarettes, many people assume they’re safer and less addictive. They’re wrong.
A student at the school meeting said that in eighth grade, she asked her older brother about vaping. He told her it was as bad as smoking cigarettes, so she quit. But that doesn’t usually happen, teachers say.
“The students tell me they think vaping is harmless,” said Laura Pirkey, social studies teacher at Bluffton High School. “They don’t know the health risks.”
“Parents, don’t be surprised,” a middle school administrator at one meeting warned. “Middle schoolers are using e-cigarettes. Don’t wait until high school to act.”
Millions of Americans use e-cigarettes, introduced to the mass market in 2007. Many mistakenly think there aren’t as many chemicals in vape pens as regular cigarettes, and some smokers have even used vape pens to give up smoking tobacco. Those people, experts say, are really just giving up one toxic habit for another.
“E-cigarette aerosol is not harmless,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It can contain harmful substances, including nicotine, heavy metals like lead, volatile organic compounds and cancer-causing agents.”
And because e-cigarettes are relatively new, little is known about their health effects.
“No studies on the long-term effects of e-cigarettes exist yet,” said Cathy Redmond, owner of Pirate’s Cove Vapor Lounge in Bluffton. “But there is plenty of documentation that e-cigarettes are much safer than traditional cigarettes.”
That still doesn’t mean that e-cigarettes are safe, others said.
“No matter how it enters the body — e-cigarettes, conventional cigarettes or chewing tobacco — nicotine is hazardous,” said Dr. Michael Blaha of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. “Nicotine is highly addictive. It raises your blood pressure and spikes your adrenaline, increasing the likelihood of a heart attack. You’re exposing yourself to chemicals that we don’t yet understand.”
“While all e-cigarettes’ risks aren’t known, nicotine’s effect on brain chemistry is concerning,” said Reston Hartsell of the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, keynote speaker at the school meetings. “Possible long-term damage to younger users, whose brains don’t fully develop until their mid-20s, is troubling.”
For young people, there’s also a legal issue.
“We are trying to engage and educate the public on the dangers of these products, but also remind teens that they are illegal for minors,” said Joy Nelson, community relations manager for the Bluffton Police Department.
Today, the most popular vaping device is the JUUL — small, sleek and similar in appearance to a USB flash drive. Its subtle design makes it easy to hide, which explains its popularity among middle and high school students. JUUL has 72 percent of the market share of all vaping products in the U.S.
Justin, (not his real name) who works at a local pharmacy, says he vapes, but uses only 0.3 percent nicotine in his device. He doesn’t vape a higher concentration because his uncle, a long-time smoker, suffered a fatal heart attack at age 49, leaving a wife and two young daughters. “I want to have a family someday,” he said.
The Truth Initiative, a nationwide tobacco-control organization, surveyed students between the ages of 12 and 17 in April 2018. The results showed that 18 percent had seen JUUL used in school.
“Two decades of combatting tobacco use has prepared us to continue the fight and take on the new epidemic of youth e-cigarette use,” the organization’s website states.
Peter Manos, a local pulmonologist, is more blunt: “All of the gains we have made so far in reducing youth tobacco use have been wiped away with the new e-cigarette epidemic. It’s so easy now for anyone to buy a vaping device online.”
Concerned, the federal government is cracking down. In September, the Food and Drug Administration sent more than 1,300 warning letters and issued fines to retailers that illegally sold e-cigarette products to minors during the summer. The agency also is considering restrictions on flavored e-cigarettes — those most popular among youth.
Locally, sale of vaping products to minors doesn’t seem to be a problem — and local officials want to keep it that way.
“We have had no reports of local retailers selling e-cigarettes to minors,” said Lt. Todd Calhoun of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department. “If we did, we would certainly investigate it.”
Nationally, however, e-cigarette use among young people is an “epidemic,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. “Let me be clear that nicotine isn’t a benign substance. We see clear signs that youth use of electronic cigarettes has reached an epidemic proportion and we must stem this clear and present danger. We cannot allow a whole new generation to become addicted to nicotine.”
Mark Anderson retired from a 31-year career in the Federal Government. He lives in Bluffton and enjoys writing, golf, and fishing.