You didn’t have to be a student to attend Wednesday evening’s “Vape 101” community forum at Cortland Intermediate/Junior High School. In fact, parents and concerned Cortland County residents were the intended audience for the youth vaping forum hosted by the Cortland County Health Department.
Jenn Hamilton, Tobacco Free Zone, and Melissa Potter, Reality Check, opened the event, detailing the dangers and health implications of vaping and dispelling the myth that vaping is just “harmless water vapor.”
“Juul is the hottest e-cigarette on the market,” Jenn Hamilton said. “Juul holds nearly 75% of the market share of e-cigs. Juul sales increased 641% during just one year” she said, and Juul is the device parents are most likely to find on their child. It looks like a flash drive, and it’s easy to conceal: you can hide it in the palm of your hand. Vaping among youth has become so ubiquitous it’s morphed into a verb: “I’m juuling”; “Let’s go juul.” Vaping has gone beyond a substance and become a culture among youth.
Juul, specifically, has twice the amount of nicotine as most e-cigs. Nicotine is addictive, toxic, and potentially lethal in very high doses. “Until about age 25, the brain is still growing and because the adolescent brain is still developing, nicotine use during this critical period can disrupt the formation of brain circuits that control attention, learning, and susceptibility to addiction,” Hamilton said.
In December 2018, the Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service issued an advisory of e-cigarettes among youth, calling it an “epidemic.” Although progress has been made in reducing cigarette smoking—trends in tobacco product use among high school students in NYS from 2000 to 2018 shows a 22.3% drop in cigarettes—e-cigarette use has skyrocketed. E-cigarette use has become the most commonly used tobacco product among US youth since 2014, and from 2014 to 2018 alone, e-cigarette use among youth jumped 16.9% in New York.
In Cortland County, the legal purchase age of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes is 21. NYS just recently passed a law to raise the purchasing age to 21 in counties across the state and will go into effect this fall.
E-cigarettes are also under the umbrella of NYS’s Clean Indoor Act, so that means any place that already prohibits traditional cigarette smoking also prohibits the use of e-cigarettes. Additionally, due to education laws, e-cigarettes are not allowed to be possessed or used on school grounds.
On top of the potential negative physiological side effects of vaping, e-cigarettes have the same troubling marketing practices as cigarettes, spanning magazines, newspapers, billboards, television, and internet ads, from faux imagery and sex appeal to exaggerated health claims and celebrity endorsements. E-cigarettes are able to reach younger audiences by employing cartoon characters in their ads and developing thousands of sweet flavors for the nicotine pods, including the all-time youth favorite, cotton candy.
“E-cigarette companies have capitalized on gaps in regulation by offering kid-friendly flavors like cotton candy and gummy bear and packaging e-liquids to look like candy and other food items,” Melissa Potter, said. “Youth e-cigarette users cite flavors as the main reason they began using e-cigarettes,” she said.
Homer Principal Douglas Van Etten hid an e-cigarette in his hand while answering questions during the panel discussion and said one of his biggest concerns for his school district is the ease of concealing an e-cigarette. VanEtten also fears how freely e-cigarettes are passed around among youth and the potential for modification, i.e., replacing nicotine pods with THC-based concentrates. (THC is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects.) “My concern is the unknown situation a student may not realize they’re getting into that comes with significant health risks,” VanEtten said. “If you see something unusual, you need to ask about: What is that?: Where did you get it?; Why do you have it?” he said.
Both Homer School Resource Officer (SRO) Mike Bort and Cortland SRO Rob Reyngoudt encourage parents and concerned residents to start the education process now on e-cigarettes so they know what to look for among youth in the area.
On top of the possibility of suspension for being caught with or smoking an e-cigarette on school grounds, youth can also face criminal charges for altered pods containing THC.
“My school of thought has never been to criminalize childish behavior, but there’s a line drawn, that I’ve drawn from the beginning, and that involves when there’s violence or when drugs get brought into school,” Rob Reyngoudt said. “So what we’re having now is not a simple possession of marijuana charge, which is only a violation, but criminal possession of a controlled substance, which is a misdemeanor. Our children are committing misdemeanors by possessing them, by using them, by exchanging them, by selling them,” he said.
Reyngoudt also noted that a poll of 300 students taken at Cortland High School by the Cortland High School Voice showed that 25% of students stated they are addicted to nicotine.
Stuart Gillim, MD, Cortland County Medical Advisor, shared some of the chemicals found in e-cigarettes: nicotine, propylene glycol (same thing as anti-freeze), toluene, glycerin, formaldehyde, lead, cadmium, nickel, among many others. “Some of these chemicals have been known to cause cancer or lung damage,” Gillim said. He also said addiction ability is higher among youth than it is in adults.
Emily Nink from the Tobacco Policy Center said there’s a role for establishing local laws to regulate where and how e-cigarettes are sold and youth access to e-cigarettes. Nink also said it’s important to focus on limiting the density of stores selling e-cigarettes in local communities and maintaining higher taxes on e-cigarette products (and all tobacco products) in NYS because youth tend to be price-sensitive.
“We’ve had some serious discussions with village of Homer officials as well as city of Cortland officials about the density of e-cig retail locations,” Jenn Hamilton said. “Why do we need to have all of these places that are contributing to the culture of e-cigs being a normal way of life. It’s not acceptable for us to perpetuate that normalcy and to continue to create this picture for the next generation. We need to do something about that now,” she said.