BY ALEXANDER WILLIS
Michelle Fiscus with the Tennessee Department of Health stopped by Summit High School in Spring Hill Monday night to educate parents on the dangers of vaping, and its ever growing popularity among young teens.
Vaping refers to the use of electronic cigarettes, whose use has skyrocketed in recent years among middle and high school students across the state and country. According to the Tennessee Department of Health, Tennessee ranks seventh for the highest tobacco use among teens, and that trend has certainly extended to vaping.
Fiscus said that while many consumers and teens believe vaping to be a healthier alternative to cigarette smoking, the high nicotine content, as well as the litany of chemicals, make this a false perception.
“This is not water – this is an aerosol that is comprised of toxins, cancer-causing chemicals, [and] heavy metals like lead and tin” Fiscus said. “There are all kinds of bad things in that cloud of vapor that you see, and so right from the very beginning, kids have this idea that this is just flavored water that they’re inhaling. Yes, there’s no tar in these products, but there’s lots of other stuff that we don’t even begin to know what the effect of those chemicals are on lungs.”
Among the increased dangers of vaping when compared to traditional cigarettes include its accessibility, taste, and ease of access, according to Fiscus.
While electronic cigarettes are still restricted for purchase by minors, studies conducted by the Department of Health have discovered 94 percent of Tennessee minors were able to successfully purchase Juul, a brand of electronic cigarette, online.
Juul has been heavily criticized in the media for allegedly targeting minors in its advertising, which has been so severe that the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office had launched an investigation into the company. The FDA has even threatened to shutdown the company as recent as September of this year if it didn’t curb its advertising towards minors.
Fiscus said that Juul’s sleek design, various sweet flavors and usability has made it the vaping product of choice with today’s teens, with more than 2 million U.S. middle and high school students reporting that they had used an electronic cigarette in the past 30 days.
Erica McMurtrey, who has been a counselor at Summit High School for more than two years, said that students are getting more creative in finding ways to vape in school.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things,” McMurtrey said. “It’s really kind of evolving, we’ve locked back bathrooms before because that was a popular place we figured out people were vaping. Well, they just kind of find another place. So it’s all about trying to catch it, because unfortunately, unless you do a pat down and search them, there’s no way you can prove it.”
McMurtrey said that for a student caught possessing, distributing, or using any electronic cigarette, they receive an automatic three day in-school-suspension, as well as a criminal citation on their first offense. A second offense increase in-school-suspension to five days, as well as issues the student another criminal citation. After a second offense, students continue to receive the citations and in-school-suspension, but are assigned to a counselor such as McMurtrey do dig deeper into their situation.
McMurtrey said that Summit High School always has two regional security officers on duty at any given time, as well as school staff monitoring hallways and classrooms. Fiscus said while monitoring does help, ultimately its parents that need to help educate their children on the side-effects of vaping.
The different flavors of electronic cigarettes are also a big draw towards teens according to Fiscus. The FDA effectively banned cigarettes with flavors – except for menthol – in 2009, citing its appeal to minors. Electronic cigarettes on the other hand continue to produce endless amounts of sweet flavors, everything from cotton candy to vanilla.
Using Juul electronic cigarettes as an example again, Fiscus warned that the enjoyable taste can lead to teens ingesting far more nicotine than they might be able to using traditional cigarettes.
The Juul electronic cigarettes have two main components: the device itself, and the disposable pods that contain the nicotine juice. A pack of four pods can be purchased for $16, about the cost of two to three packs of real cigarettes.
Fiscus explained that about ten puffs from a Juul electronic cigarette is the equivalent of one real cigarettes amount of nicotine. Each pod contains approximately 200 puffs, meaning one pod is the equivalent of smoking an entire packet of cigarettes, in terms of nicotine. And, due to the less harsh experience of vapor compared to smoke, as well as the sweet flavors, this is a much easier task when using electronic cigarettes.
Fiscus argues the best way for parents to help their children make the right decisions when it comes to nicotine use is to actively communicate with them on a regular basis. She said they should also be informing them of all the potential risks.
“I’m a pediatrician by training, and so it’s pretty much in my DNA to stop kids from dying,” Fiscus said. “It’s the biggest epidemic we’ve seen from a public health standpoint, I am not aware of a bigger public health issue than this among youth.”