Devastating headlines revealing 450 vaping-related illnesses and seven deaths in 36 states has started nation-wide conversations about electronic cigarette use and a proposed guidance from President Trump.
A quarter of the high schoolers in America say they vape, according to NPR. More than 2 million middle school and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2017, and the number grew to 3.62 million in 2018, according to the FDA. Nearly 11 million people used vaporizers in 2018 — double the number in 2017 — according to Inside Higher Ed.
Underage students often get access to vaporizers through older friends who can buy it legally. Sophomore Ty Gilliland started vaping during his sophomore year of high school.
“It started with an older upperclassmen friend who did it, and I liked the flavors, taste and everything,” Gilliland said. “It just kind of took off from there. I would use them all the time. I would go through a Juul pod a day, easy.”
Alex Azar, U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, received new data at the start of September that 27.5% of high school students said they had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days — a 6.7% increase since last year. According to the Washington Post, this is the second largest increase in e-cigarette use over the past two years.
According to the same article from the Washington Post, Azar and other White House officials had two meetings with President Trump beginning Sept. 9 highlighting concerns and issues regarding e-cigarette use among youth.
President Trump, faced with drastic increases in vape usage along with vaping-related illnesses, decided to propose a guidance which would ban all flavored e-cigarettes.
Students often use vaporizers for the social gratification. As they continue to use them, some even begin seeing it as part of their identity. One such person is sophomore Koley O’Neill. He considers vaping part of his lifestyle because many people see him with it and know he has one.
“It’s a pretty good social tool to have,” O’Neill said. “I’ve actually made new friends from having it. All my friends have vapes.”
E-cigarettes are popular among young people due to the variety of flavors available. Juul Lab Inc., the leading e-cigarette brand, has eight Juul Pod flavors available — mango, mint, Virginia tobacco, creme, classic tobacco, cucumber, fruit and menthol.
These options are more appealing than the taste and smell of tobacco from conventional cigarettes. E-cigarettes were created with the intention to curb cigarette use among adults. However, it has become a popular trend in the youth to use e-cigarettes. Many claim this is because of the e-cigarette flavors that are targeted towards youth.
It’s one reason Vapor Maven employee Geno Cole started vaping. He grew up around people who smoked cigarettes, and he used this alternative as soon as he could. He primarily vapes to relieve stress every now and then.
“I don’t want to smoke cigarettes,” Cole said. “From what I’ve been hearing and what I’ve been reading, those are worse off than what these are.”
If the guidance were to roll out, every flavor besides tobacco would be removed from the market — both in stores and online. The flavored products would not be permitted back into the market until receiving FDA approval.
Officials said the guidance would be published in several weeks, going into effect 30 days after publication, according to the Washington Post.
O’Neill also vapes to relieve stress, mainly while doing homework.
“You get buzzed from the nicotine, so it’s kind of a load off your back for a little bit,” O’Neill said. “I’ll just take a pull from it just to shift away from the homework for a little bit, and then I can get back into it. For now, all I can say is that there are more pros because I don’t really know what it does harmfully.”
While vaporizers don’t have as many harmful chemicals as burning tobacco in conventional cigarettes, they still contain nicotine. Juul claims one Juulpod has the nicotine equivalent of 20 cigarettes.
Using nicotine in adolescence harms development in areas of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control, according to the CDC.
Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco nonprofit, conducted a study that found 63% of Juul users ages 15 to 24 don’t know the pods contain nicotine. Many users thought the pods were comprised of only flavoring, according to the Boston Globe.
While recent articles from sources like the New York Times and the Washington Post have been focusing on the harmful effects of vaping, Cole thinks the media coverage fails to recognize vaping is a better alternative than cigarettes. Cigarettes kill 480,000 people each year — a far greater number than seven — according to Harvard Health Publishing.
“The one thing I think people don’t ever understand is no one is saying that vaping is good for you,” Cole said. “That’s not the point that people are trying to get across. The point is that it’s better than cigarettes. … They’re making it sound like it’s a good versus evil thing when no, it’s the better of two bads.”
Reading articles about the harmful effects and potential illnesses didn’t deter Gilliland from vaping. However, he quit vaping three weeks ago because his father had seen potential dangers of vaping while at the hospital.
“The girl right next door was having to do a double lung transplant, and that’s one thing that kind of really opened my eyes up to it,” Gilliland said. “My older brother and his girlfriend decided to quit that day, so I decided to give it up. Since I quit, it’s been amazing. I’m trying to get all my friends to quit. I’m proud I don’t do it anymore.”
Gilliland had tried to quit before, but he wasn’t successful because he kept the Juul modified vape pen — commonly known as a mod — saying he would just stop buying pods. This time, he got rid of the device so it wasn’t even an option when he was craving it during the first couple days.
When Gilliland looks back, he couldn’t determine why he used it as much as he did or why he spent that much money on it. It had become part of his routine, and he didn’t think about it. The Juul pods come in packs of four that cost about $18, so using a pod every day became expensive.
He has noticed his physical health improve now that he doesn’t use a vaporizer. He has had an easier time playing basketball.
“It just wasn’t worth it anymore,” Gilliland said. “The first couple weeks when I was still vaping and playing basketball, my lungs would just be terrible. Now, I feel drastically better. I can consistently breathe when I’m running and stuff which is scary to think about because wow, this is how I should be breathing. It’s hard to notice it while you’re doing it, but as soon as I quit, the difference is very eye-opening.”
Gilliland encourages his friends to quit by constantly telling them about how much better he feels without vaping, yet he knows that it’s ultimately their decision.
The long-term effects of vaping are generally unknown. With the rise of cases with vaping-related illnesses, banning flavored pods has been proposed to discourage young people from using them, according to the New York Times.
Cole said this wouldn’t be effective.
“You can’t restrict adults from what they want to do based off of things teenagers in high schools are doing,” Cole said. “If you want to stop teens from vaping, then that should be your target group. Out-right banning it doesn’t work. We’ve seen that with prohibition (and) the weed laws. I just think it should be a more restrictive, precautionary thing. … It should be more about prevention instead of prohibition.”
Rachel Adamson contributed to this article.