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Blowing smoke: Vaping has become 'epidemic' among area teens

The number of U.S. teens vaping has spiked so drastically over the summer the FDA is calling it "an epidemic." (Adobe art)1 / 2
Experts say a lot of parents don't even know what vaping devices look like and are often fooled by the different shapes and sizes of them...some being so small they could be mistaken for a flash drive. Photo from Creative Commons2 / 2

Teenagers are doing it everywhere—in the car, in the school bathrooms, even in the hallways and classroom. Vaping, or using electronic cigarettes, has become so popular among minors that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement recently saying the issue "has hit epidemic proportions."

To counteract the underage use of nicotine, the FDA has given the major makers of vaping devices 60 days to make a plan to stop the marketing and selling of their products to minors. If the e-cigarette companies don't comply, the FDA has threatened to ban the sale of some or all of their flavored products, a change that could cripple vape businesses without having much of an effect on teens using nicotine.

"I would hope it (a flavor ban) would help, but I don't think that necessarily would help much," said Angie Horner, the drug and alcohol counselor at Detroit Lakes High School.

Horner says it feels too late for a flavor ban to be effective—a lot of kids have already started vaping, and they seem pretty set in their ways. She and other high school staff were surprised to see such a spike in the number of students using e-cigarettes this year—and using them right on campus.

"We had one student in a classroom who was hiding it (the e-cigarette) in a sweatshirt. She was sucking it out of one sleeve and blowing into the other sleeve," said Horner.

E-cigarettes emit a vapor, rather than smoke, which has gained them a reputation for being "a smarter alternative to smoking" and also made it easier for people to use nicotine—as well as some narcotics—in a relatively discrete manner. The vapor doesn't linger in the air or on clothes the way cigarette smoke does.

Horner says she thinks the fact that vaping doesn't smell bad (the flavored vapors actually have a pleasant smell) have taken a lot of the stigma out of nicotine use. It wasn't the addiction that made some people turn up their nose at smoking—it was the bad smell.

"I think it's become this fun, popular thing for kids to do," said Horner, adding that it's not just the group of kids who would normally smoke doing it—the trend is popular among girls, kids in clubs, athletes are even doing it, risking having to sit out of sports if they are caught.

And they are getting caught and facing the same consequences as they would be if they were caught with cigarettes.

"We just had a pile of ninth graders get in trouble for this," said Horner, saying it seems like she has two or three newly-confiscated vape devices on her desk almost every other day, a new student in her chair that she has to counsel about the downsides of getting addicted to nicotine.

Though, she says the students aren't always receptive. "Just the attitude about it...Some say, 'You are not going to tell me what to do. I'm going to keep doing it. I've researched it, and you just leave me alone'".

But Horner worries the "research" these teens have done is misleading them. Many teens seem to just hear "healthy" or "safe" when the actual marketing tagline for these things is a "smarter alternative" or "a satisfying alternative to cigarettes."

And James Robideaux, director of operations at Masterpiece Vapors in Detroit Lakes, says it is a great alternative to smoking...for someone who is already hooked. He says e-cigarettes have helped many cigarette smokers wean off the habit altogether; it's saved lives, and he fears a flavor ban like the FDA could cause people to turn back to smoking cigarettes.

"Flavors are an integral component to the success smokers have with transitioning away from cigarettes or chew, as most want to get away from the flavor of tobacco altogether and need a flavor that works for their individual palate to keep them vaping and not relapsing back to smoking," he said. "Annihilating the vaping industry will most certainly result in a sharp increase in youth and adult smoking alike."

What does science say?

The fact is, science hasn't yet caught up to this new technology—it's still unclear as to how much better vaping is than smoking, if at all.

According to researchers at Boston University, one of the leading research facilities currently looking into the effects of vaping, cultured cells exposed to e-cigarette vapors were genetically changed in a negative manner similar to the way cells exposed to cigarette smoke were changed. In other words, e-cigarettes may lead to cancer just like cigarettes do; however, many more studies need to be conducted to prove this effect, which takes time.

The Boston University School of Medicine professor who is heading up this early research, Avrum Spira, was quoted in an article published by the university, saying he still believes e-cigarettes are a better option than smoking because of the difference between inhaling smoke and inhaling vapor: the smoke from a cigarette contains tar and other known carcinogens that turn teeth yellow, cause heart disease, and cause cancer.

But being "safer than smoking" doesn't necessarily mean it's "safe," and that may be where people are getting confused.

"Mostly, what (teens) are learning is that it's harmless—it's just flavored water," says Horner. "Well, that's not true...what they don't realize is a lot of times what they're smoking says 'zero nicotine'—and I can do nicotine testing; I do it all the time, and it still has nicotine in it."

At this point, Horner says she and her coworkers are just trying to inform students and parents alike that these products are not "safe." She believes spreading this knowledge will have a greater effect than a flavor ban would, particularly because, whether flavored or not, vaping is so discrete parents may not even know if their kids are doing it in their bedrooms.

"If I wasn't in this field, I wouldn't have any clue if my daughter had a (vape pen) sitting right on top of her desk at home," said Horner, adding that some models are very small and could even be mistaken as a flashdrive.

Horner says if parents need a resource or would like to find out if their student is using nicotine products, she is certified to test students. All parents need to do is give her a call.