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Juuling is not so cool: The vaping epidemic hits our community

Local students hooked on juuling?

by CBCS students Caroline Bryndal, Nola Hadley, Havalin Haskell, Samantha Lakoski and Nevada Scales

A sophomore brings vertical hands to his mouth, as though in silent prayer, before lowering his head to breathe into the top of his hoodie. A thin plume of smoke, smelling sickeningly sweet like cough medicine, overflows and vanishes within seconds. By the skate park, local kids lean against the boards of alleyway buildings, waiting for an adrenaline rush that leaves behind a hollow and ephemeral longing for more.

Vaping nicotine has quickly become an epidemic among teens across the nation, and use in our community is no exception. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Colorado has the highest use rating of the 37 states surveyed, and twice as high as the national average: 58.4 percent of Colorado high schoolers reported having used the drug according to the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey data. Here in the RE1J School District, 43.4 percent of students reported having tried E-cigarettes, with 29.4 percent reporting having used them in the last 30 days. The prevalence has reached a sad, comedic level, with a recent sign on someone’s locker featuring a bathroom stall with the message “Why is there a toilet in the Juul room?”

The term “perception of harm” is often used to explain why E-cigarettes are so popular among teens, as many believe that vaping is safer than cigarettes. After all, this is the false selling point handed down to us from E-cigarette companies, which unfairly target our age group with products, designs, and flavors that appeal to youth. Tens of millions of dollars are spent to hook our generation and are responsible for undoing decades of progress in helping prevent kids from taking up smoking. These strategies are working because only half of the surveyed teens in Colorado thought that vaping was risky at all, and 66 percent believed that there was no nicotine in the vapor, according to the survey.

So what is vaping, exactly? Vape products, or E-cigarettes, deliver nicotine through a liquid that is heated into vapor and inhaled, cutting out the cancer-causing tar of combustible cigarettes. However, vaping liquids contain additives such as propylene glycol, that can form carcinogenic compounds when heated; diacetyl, the chemical blamed for causing “popcorn lung;” and formaldehyde, along with at least 60 different chemical compounds, none of which have been studied to determine long term effects.

There are many E-cigarette brands, but by far the most popular and widely sold is Juul, which has the highest nicotine concentration. One Juul pod contains nicotine levels equivalent to one pack of cigarettes and has two times more nicotine than most other E-cigarettes.

Vaping affects the human body in ways we are only beginning to understand. According to the National Center for Health Research, side effects include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, chronic bronchitis, insulin resistance, and lung disease. While these may seem dangerous on their own, effects are much more dramatic in teens. Teens who vape are shown to have slowed development of brain and lungs, decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, increased impulsivity and a higher sensitivity to other drugs.

One of the most shocking facts is that smokeless tobacco has been shown to be more addictive than alcohol or anti-anxiety medication, and almost as addictive as cocaine.

We are not surprised that students vape at our school because we know how easy it would be to hide these products. Many are willing to take the risk because they are addicted and can’t go seven hours without nicotine intake. Vape companies are making it easier and easier to conceal use with sleek, high-tech devices designed to hide vaping in everyday environments. The devices, which can be purchased in more than 460 different brands, come in all forms, including pens, pipes, cigars and, most commonly, devices that are made to resemble USB flash drives that charge in USB ports. A common refrain heard in the halls is, “Anyone have a portable charger? I need to charge my vape pen…”

Increasingly popular are accessories like bracelets with a built-in vape pen, and a variety of clothing and apparel options, including hoodies featuring vape mouthpieces in the hoodie strings for “vape-ready” wear. At the end of the day, the pens themselves are small enough that they can be used without drawing too much attention.

Currently, the FDA prohibits the sale of E-cigarettes to individuals under the age of 18. These regulations also prohibit vaping on school grounds and in any non-smoking area, but otherwise, vape pens can be used in any other public area.

In trying to tackle the issue, Crested Butte Community School’s main focus centers on education with the hope that bringing facts to light will help mitigate the situation and curb use. When asked if vaping at our school was different from other schools, Bob Piccaro, assistant principal at CBCS said, “It’s an epidemic among teens in America, and we’re not immune here.”

In conversation with students at CBCS, an anonymous user felt there was little risk, saying, “It’s just nicotine, like, it’s not even that bad.” The lack of education regarding the use of E-cigarette nicotine has created a cover for a physical addiction that no teen should have to handle.

When asked where other students were seen vaping the most, an anonymous CBCS student reported, “It’s in locker rooms, on the bus, sometimes even in class. It just flies straight by the teachers. My friends can’t stop talking about it. They’re always buying stuff, or talking about how they need to purchase more.”

Currently, if a student is caught vaping at CBCS, the school discipline policy requires a meeting with the student’s parents where they are notified, often for the first time, of their child’s use. Piccaro referred to this as an “awakening of reality” as most parents have no knowledge of their child’s use. Though students who vape might deny addiction around peers when caught, “All have admitted their inability to control the urge, or quit,” one person said.

Employees at True Value, a local retailer of Juul pods and devices, provided some insight on sales and use in our community. According to employees Mikey Strauch and Nick Hill, the biggest crowd buying Juul products is significantly younger than the average tobacco consumer, with a majority barely 18, and few over 30. The most popular flavors sold are mint and mango. True Value sees slightly more male Juul customers than female, though they say it’s nearly even. The habit isn’t cheap—a Juul device costs roughly $34.99, plus a starter pack of four pods, $15.99. The cost of continually replenishing pods is expensive, even for adults, let alone teens with limited income.

Ever since Juul arrived on the store’s shelves about a year ago, the number of young-looking customers buying age-restricted products has gone way up. Anyone buying Juul who does not clearly appear to be 18 or older must provide I.D; that is the only current regulation to the knowledge of the employees mentioned. However, they informed us that once stores (excluding establishments which are off limits for minors to enter) run out of their current stocks of fruit-flavored vape pods, they will not be able to order more due to the FDA’s recent initiative to eliminate flavors arguably aimed at teens. All flavors will continue to be sold on the company’s website.

Piccaro believes that the community as a whole needs to take a stand and action on this issue. In 2012, the city of Gunnison passed an ordinance that made possession of tobacco products for individuals under age 18 a petty offense, punishable by a mandatory court appearance, education and potential fine.

Crested Butte is currently considering a similar ordinance. In some Colorado towns such as Aspen, city officials have changed the legal age to buy nicotine products from 18 to 21 years old. Another solution could be to put a limit on the number of pods sold at once, to discourage the illegal resale or sharing of pods with minors.

Piccaro also made the point, “We need to change the social norm of negative peer pressure to positive peer pressure. This way, instead of teens encouraging their peers to try vaping, they motivate them to stop. The more we educate our youth about the negatives of this, then maybe we can start to sway some, and once we start swaying some, then peer pressure can help take over.”

The True Value staff voiced their concern around people “developing an addiction without truly knowing… how much of a drug it is,” to quote Strauch and Hill. A large part of today’s young generation is disgusted by the thought of people smoking a whole pack of cigarettes in a day, but are much less offended by vaping. “I don’t think people are fully aware of what they’re ingesting or what they’re doing to their body. I understand both sides. People see it’s targeted to kids unfairly, but I also understand the side of the convenience and the novelty,” said Hill. During the interview, a young woman just over age 18 and a recent graduate of CBCS bought a pack of Juul pods.

High school is a time for new beginnings and looking ahead. It’s difficult to watch our peers undermine all the hard work and preparation for the future by using something that is so detrimental to their health. We want to support each other in becoming the best leaders of tomorrow. In the meantime, we need the leaders of today to step up and help our community kick this dangerous habit. For more information on local efforts or support in quitting contact the Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Project, (970) 642-7396.

This article was made possible by the CBCS Writer’s Collective, a student creative writing group led by Brooke MacMillan through the CBCS Enrichment Program and Center for the Arts, Literary Arts Department.

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