Last spring, administration at Lakeland High School in White Lake called a meeting to inform teachers about the dangers of vaping, a new medium for consuming nicotine that had become a widespread issue among its students. At the forum, the school’s faculty learned what vape devices look like — they can be packaged as pens, mods, pods, boxes, tanks, and e-cigarettes — and which areas of the school vaping occurs most frequently in, such as bathrooms or science labs. Not long after, English Department Chair Isaac Perry, was asked to assist a teacher with a situation in their classroom. “Sure enough, there were [students] passing around a vape in the back,” he says.
Though vaping is less harmful than smoking cigarettes, it is not completely risk-free. Many chemicals in e-liquids, the solutions inside of the device, present a host of health concerns. Diacetyl, for example, a flavoring chemical in many vapes, is linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, a lung disease known as “Popcorn Lung.” Symptoms include dry cough, shortness of breath, and lethargy. Formaldehyde can also be produced if an e-liquid overheats or if an insufficient amount of the e-liquid is reaching the heating element in the device — what Clifford Douglas, adjunct professor at University of Michigan School of Public Health and national vice president for tobacco control at the American Cancer Society, calls a “dry puff.”
By December 2018, U.S. Surgeon General Vice Adm. Jerome M. Adams declared vaping an epidemic among adolescents. There are three possible scapegoats in the appeal to youth. First, the packaging, which Perry says looks similar to candy wrappers with “bright, flashy” designs. Saccharine flavors like cotton candy and caramel are also enticing for younger consumers, and the accessibility factor rounds out the appeal. Though the legal purchase age for vaping devices and e-liquids nationally is 18, online retailers make it simple for anyone with internet access to purchase them. “It’s the high-achieving kids, it’s the low-achieving kids, it’s everybody in between, it’s athletes and non-athletes, it’s advanced-placement kids,” says Perry of the students who have taken up vaping, some of whom are as young as 13 years old.
Vaping also doesn’t emit a pungent odor like cigarettes, so students no longer have to “escape” class to get away with it, Perry says. When the user inhales from the device, a cartridge often containing nicotine, flavoring, e-liquid, and other chemicals is heated, creating the visible vapor to be exhaled. (A common misconception about vaping is that the smoke-like “vapor” is water vapor. It is actually an aerosol.)
What makes vaping different from conventional cigarette smoking is the absence of tobacco and combustion, better known as smoke. “Combustible tobacco products produce about 7,000 chemicals, 70 of which … cause cancer in people,” Douglas says.
Perry says the anxiety levels among his students are extremely high, which often leads to them seeking out unhealthy outlets. He believes that a possible solution for curbing substance abuse trends is making teens aware of what triggers their stress and finding healthy ways to manage it.
Programs that speak to the dangers of such trends are also important. To this end, nearly six months after the staff meeting at Lakeland, the school held another assembly concerning the hazards associated with vaping — this time, strictly for the students.
“Leaving that assembly, I distinctly heard several juniors say, ‘I’m done. I’m not doing that anymore,’ ” Perry says. “So, the message is getting out there.”