The headlines read like something out of a disaster movie, in which vaping takes over the world, but they are all too real:
• This week, a California man – who was older than 18 – becomes the seventh person to die from a vaping-related illness in the United States, and on Thursday it was reported that a 40-year old man in St. Louis died of a vaping-related illness.
• Dr. Karen Haught, a Tulare County, California, public health officer, said in a news release: “After a vaping-related illness, the young man (who died) had lungs like a 70-year-old’s.”
• The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activates emergency operations to better investigate the outbreak of vaping-related illness.
So how can vaping flavors like Gooey Butter Cake, Bubblegum, Cherry Limeade, Banana Nut Bread, I Love Cookies Too and Berry-A-Peelin’ be so deadly?
“We are working around the clock to find out what is making people sick,” Ileana Arias, the CDC’s acting deputy director of non-infectious diseases, said last week. “The focus of the investigation is narrowing, but we are still faced with complicated questions in this outbreak.”
The CDC also said it’s aware of 450 possible vaping-related cases in 33 states. While vaping has been around for more than a decade, the CDC said the recent spike in illnesses started around May or June of this year.
But in Eastern Jackson County, vaping has been the choice of youngsters – middle schoolers and high schoolers.
“It’s an epidemic,” Grain Valley High School activities director Brandon Hart said. “I was in (assistant principal) Mike Tarrants’ office the other day, and a teacher brought in four kids – and they were all questioned about vaping.”
Grain Valley High School has had 12 reported cases of vaping so far this year – compared with 63 in the last school year – and countless more instances in which students are near the sweet-smelling vapor in bathrooms, but no one can prove their involvement.
“Brandon’s right. It is an epidemic,” Tarrants said. “I think kids are drawn to the flavors – all the fruit flavors, cotton candy, bubble gum – and they don’t even think that it can be addictive.”
“And it must be easy to buy, because we’ve had to deal with kids from freshmen to seniors when it comes to enforcing our vaping laws.”
A letter the high school sent to parents says:
“According to the FDA, ‘E-cigs have become an almost ubiquitous and dangerous trend among teens. The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end. Congress and the FDA are considering all options to curb teenage use of all e-cig devices, including a possible ban.’”
“Many articles state that there are alarming concerns about teenage use of these devices and the high levels of nicotine that are found in user’s system. Mixed with the obvious health concerns of developing teens, the marketing of candy and fruity flavors, as well as, the possibilities of adding controlled substances to the devices ‘juice,’ parents and other adults should be concerned about this growing trend.”
One parent who was concerned about the trend for three years was Emily Estrada, whose daughter Lillian, 17, was suspended several times for vaping.
“When I got a phone call from Mr. Tarrants, my heart would stop,” Estrada said, “because I knew it had something to do with my daughter.”
“There was a time when I could not put it down. I was vaping all the time,” Lillian said, as Tarrants nodded in agreement. “The flavors were what kids were looking for, and it was cool – at least the kids who were doing it thought it was cool. And it was easy to get – anyone could get what they needed to vape.”
“But it wasn’t cool. It was nasty. And it was addictive. And it affects you – it affects your body. When I was in eighth grade and when I was a freshman, I played sports. I don’t play sports anymore. I’m out of breath walking from the school to the parking lot.”
“Really, I think it’s an oral fixation. I was a sophomore, and I tried it and it was like, ‘This is too good to be true.’ But it took a toll on me, and it will take a toll on anyone who’s doing it.”
“I haven’t done it in a long time, and I’m not going to do it anymore. I have too much to think about – getting my grades up, taking the ACT, getting into college. I basically wasted my first three years of high school, and vaping had a lot to do with it. Now, I have a lot of catching up to do.”
Getting the word out
“Vaping is a big, big concern in the Independence School District,” Superintendent Dale Herl said. “We treat it the same way we treat students who are involved with nicotine.”
Mike Becker, the principal at William Chrisman High School, said vaping incidents have drastically declined at his school.
“Through 25 days of school, we have had just two instances of dealing with students with e-cigarettes/vaping,” Becker said. “And I believe that is because we are getting the message out about how dangerous it can be.”
“Every time you watch the news it seems like they are talking about a new vaping death. We’re getting the message out to the kids and their parents, and they are responding in a positive way.”
Herl said his son Dane, a sophomore at Chrisman, backs Becker, adding, “Dane told me that last year, he saw all kinds of kids vaping, but he has not seen any vaping this year. I asked him, ‘Are you telling me a story? Really?’ He’s telling me just what he’s seeing and Mike backs what Dane is saying, too. Which is great news.”
“Vaping appears to start in middle school age students,” said Tom Phillips, director of public safety for the Blue Springs School District. “Most try it out of curiosity or because a friend or family member vapes. Most students tell us that a large number of students vape especially after school hours.”
The school district this changed its policy this year, less suspension time for a first-time offense and letting principals handle the situation. A second offense is a 10-day suspension out of school.
“They are sent to Youth Court, which is a diversion program to help youth offenders,” Phillips said. “Education is the key and getting the word out about vaping is very important.”
Fort Osage School District Superintendent Jason Snodgrass said the situation is alarming.
“There are so many more instances of vaping now than there were two or three years ago,” Snodgrass said. “It’s something we monitor close. You have to pay attention, because it happens all the time.”
Much like Independence, the first vaping offense results in a three-day, out-of-school suspension.
“After that,” Snodgrass said, “we look at the situation. We have to make sure that our students and their parents are educated and aware of the dangers of vaping. Look at all the deaths around the country, and the number of young people who have the lungs of eldery people – and it’s from vaping.”
“It’s not safe! It can be so dangerous. Vaping hasn’t been around long enough to know what it does to your body over a long period of time, but it has nicotine and certainly can affect your lungs and results in slow brain development. And what is so scary is that so many teenagers don’t think it’s dangerous. It doesn’t smell bad like cigarettes, it comes in all kinds of flavors – and people are dying from it all over the country.”
‘Take care of yourself’
So what would Lillian Estrada say to a youngster who is thinking about vaping?
“Oh, I have so many things I would say,” Lillian said. “I had 54 absences last semester. I don’t even know how many times I’ve been suspended. I have trouble breathing, and my grades are so bad – but I’m working hard to get them up.”
“There were times I thought I was just going to be a bum – a bum, who vaped. If I could say something to a young kid who is thinking about vaping, I would say to get educated. Find out how dangerous it is. Surround yourself with good people. Listen to your parents – they are so much smarter than you think – and take care of yourself. You only have one life, so don’t mess it up by vaping.”
The American Heart Association and vaping
The American Heart Association calls vaping “a dangerous trend with real health risks” and says E-cigarettes should not be promoted as a safe alternative to smoking.
The group describes the problem this way:
Many people think vaping is less harmful than smoking. While it’s true that e-cigarette aerosol or vapor doesn’t include all the contaminants in tobacco smoke, vaping still isn’t safe. Here are just a few of the reasons why:
• Most e-cigs deliver nicotine, which is highly addictive and may cause negative health effects such as harming the developing brains of teens, kids and fetuses in women who vape while pregnant. Some types expose users to even more nicotine than traditional cigarettes.
• E-cig vapor includes potentially harmful substances such as nicotine, diacetyl (a chemical linked to a serious lung disease), cancer-causing chemicals, volatile organic compounds, and heavy metals such as nickel, tin, and lead. And because vapor is exhaled, those nearby are also exposed to these contaminants.
• The liquid used in e-cigs can be dangerous, even apart from its intended use. Children and adults have been poisoned by swallowing, breathing or absorbing the liquid through their skin or eyes.
The group adds that smoking is the leading preventable cause of death and is responsible for 480,000 American lives lost each year. It says. “E-cigarettes’ biggest threat to public health may be this: The increasing popularity of vaping may ‘re-normalize’ smoking, which has declined for years.”