Earlier this month, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb made national headlines when he said that the rates of teenagers who vape had reached “epidemic” proportions. People who work or study in local high schools agreed, and called for community action to address the trend.
“I’ve been blown away by how many kids do it," said David Williams, principal of Belmont High School. "And kids from every group, kids you would never suspect.”
It’s not just a problem in Belmont. Principals at Laconia, Gilford and Inter-Lakes High School all were alarmed at the prevalence of their students who use the electronic devices, which allow them to inhale clouds of flavored vapor, usually containing nicotine. The FDA has taken the position that vaping is a preferable behavior to smoking, and could be used by adult smokers trying to quit tobacco.
The problem is, teenagers who have never lit up a cigarette are willing to try vaping.
According to the 2017 High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered every two years by the Centers for Disease Control, 23.8 percent of New Hampshire students reported using an electronic vapor product within the 30 days preceding the survey,. Only 7.8 percent of students said they had smoked a cigarette within that same time frame.
Kelly Gaspa, at the Partnership for Public Health, said there are two reasons for parents and their children to be concerned. The first is that vaping seems to be rapidly on the rise, especially among young people; the second is that those young people don’t associate vaping with risk.
“The perception of harm from these devices is really low, and that’s unfortunate,” Gaspa said. Unfortunately for the users, they are usually ingesting nicotine, which can lead to a long-term addiction. “I think kids would use this product who maybe haven’t engaged in other substances and don’t realize that this ingredient is in there.”
Gaspa said that misperception often applies to the parent, who may not understand exactly what their child is doing. It could be easy to miss, too, because some of the devices – the Juul is now the overwhelming choice of young vapers, according to a group of high school students – are small and appear very similar to a USB memory stick. The Juul even charges by being plugged into a USB port on a computer.
“With the Juul products themselves, they are designed to be concealed. What we are finding is that they are using these products right in the classroom,” Gaspa said.
Athletes and honor students
One junior at Belmont High School, finishing a suspension for bringing a Juul into the school, said he tried a Juul at the end of his sophomore year. A friend let him try his.
“I just liked the way it hit – it just hit my lungs the way I liked it,” he said. Though he is 16, he said he had no problem acquiring the Juul device and disposable pods, which contain the flavor liquid and about the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. He would just walk into any gas station or convenience store and almost never was asked for identification to prove he was 18, the legal age to buy a vape device.
Despite multiple calls to the State Liquor Commission – the agency responsible for enforcing the state's laws on tobacco and alcohol purchases – nobody from that agency was available to talk about what, if any, enforcement efforts they have taken to police underage sales.
For the 16-year-old Belmont student, being able to walk out of a store with vaping equipment meant he soon had a habit.
“It was every day, wherever I was going, I was hitting it. I was literally hitting it every second of the day,” he said. That was the case until Sept. 12, when he walked out of the school bathroom and a teacher saw the Juul in his hand. The device was confiscated, and the student, who asked to not be named, realized he had a budding addiction.
“You don’t realize that you’re hooked until it gets taken away from you,” he said. “The cravings come out.”
Zach Ennis, a senior at Belmont High School, said he knows of high-performing student-athletes who will vape right up until their event. “The stigma that athletes or honor students don’t do it is quite wrong,” he said.
Ennis said some young people try vaping because they want to see if they can do tricks, such as blowing smoke rings. “They look cool, but then they get hooked.”
“I’ve never seen what the draw to it is,” said Zack Duclos, also a senior. He knows of many students who vape outside of school hours, and nearly all of them, he said, have never smoked a cigarette. Duclos suspects that the real number of students who vape is far higher than the 23.8-percent who reported recent use in the survey.
“I’d give it a solid 80 (percent),” he said.
Makenzie Donovan, a senior, knows how easy it can be to start. She didn’t think anything of it last spring, when she found herself with a Juul in her hand. “Everyone was passing it around on the bus, on the way home from softball,” she said. She thought, “Why not?”
As luck would have it, she was spotted, and she and three of her classmates were given suspensions. Donovan said the prevalence of vaping will make the trend difficult to address.
“I think it’s an awful problem,” she said.
At Gilford High School, principal Anthony Sperazzo said the school has met with students and sent letters home to parents, hoping to head off the prevailing attitude among the student body in regard to vaping. The school has even changed the language in its student handbook to explicitly include vaping under its list of prohibited activities, along with smoking, drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs.
“Right now, the fad is to vape,” Sperazzo said. When caught, students usually express indifference to the risk. “What we do hear from students is, ‘Yeah, it’s just a vape.’ It could be very harmful. We’re continuing to meet with our students to educate them. We’re finding that this is happening at the middle school level as well… It’s a community problem,” Sperazzo said. “We are not going to tolerate this. We’re fearful of what people could be putting into their bodies that could be harmful.”
Mike Frederickson, principal at Laconia High School, and Dave Bartlett, assistant principal, said there’s a general lack of knowledge among their students about vaping.
“I don’t think that they see it as harmful,” said Bartlett. But Frederickson said there are reasons to be concerned about young people developing nicotine habits.
“It affects brain development, it develops addiction habits,” Frederickson said. “We look at the kids like they’re our own.”
Individual students who are identified as having a vaping habit are referred to the school’s drug and alcohol counselor, but Frederickson said it’s time for the school to take a broader approach.
“We’ve been kicking the tires on this issue,” he said. “We’re an educational facility, how do we educate the kids?”
Patti Murphy, principal at Inter-Lakes High School, expressed similar concern: “I think the vaping trend is dramatically on the rise – partly because the kids do not think it is harmful.” She had heard that last year, there might have even been students vaping in class. “I do not think kids are vaping in classrooms this year because they know that we are on the lookout for it.
“We updated the handbook to include vaping and made sure that kids know it can result in an out-of-school suspension. We are also trying to educate students, staff and parents,” Murphy added.
Williams, the Belmont principal, said the conversation needs to happen at a young age, and with every student.
“It transcends the traditional clique lines. Every group, athletes, scholars, they have the perception that it doesn’t hurt them,” Williams said. “They’re experiencing it at the middle school. By the time they get to the high school, they’re hooked.”
A way to get off cigarettes
Tom Slawniak owns Raven Vape, which has a location in Tilton and one in Laconia on Union Avenue, within sight of the high school. Anyone who comes into his store and looks younger than 30 will get carded, he said.
But young people don’t need to go to a specialty vape shop to get a Juul device, the vape device of choice for high schoolers.
Slawniak said the Juul is an outlier in the vape industry. Other devices that he sells come with refillable containers for the liquid, and user can choose to use decreasing amounts of nicotine. But not the Juul, which can only be used with its own brand of disposable cartidges and only comes in one concentration of nicotine – and it’s a high dose.
“I don’t like them, for the simple fact that they still look like a cigarette," Slawniak said. "We want to get people off the cigarette, off that bandwagon. They contain quite a bit of nicotine, we want to get people off of nicotine.” He also criticized Juul for putting its products in seemingly every gas station and convenience store. “Even Walmart has it,” he said.
Juul’s sudden rise among young people could threaten the industry as a whole. When Gottlieb issued his “epidemic” statement, he gave the vaping industry 60 days to show how it would prevent the devices from getting into underaged hands. Slawniak said he shares that goal.
“For the industry, it is a concern. We do not want underage kids to be vaping at all. This is not something you pick up, this is something to get you off of cigarettes… If you do not smoke, you should not pick up vaping, at all. It’s a habit, it’s a nicotine habit. The goal is to get you off of nicotine, not start you on nicotine.”