When vaping first hit the market more than a decade ago, it was thought of as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes and, even better, a solution to help wean smokers off the dangerous habit altogether.
But as vaping grows in popularity, teens are being nudged to experiment, schools are hurrying to adopt new policies, law enforcement leaders are updating their substance abuse curriculum, and parents are working to catch up.
Vaping uses an electronic device to typically heat up nicotine-containing liquids and produce inhalable vapors. Unlike cigarettes or cigars, vaping leaves behind only a subtle, almost fruity smell, and the newest e-cigarettes are designed to look like everyday items, like USB drives or pens.
That means it’s easy for students to carry them on school campuses, and even smoke them, without being detected.
“It is exploding in schools. We’re seeing a lot of it,” said Matt Bennett, a Leesburg police officer who serves as Simpson Middle School’s school resource officer.
So far this school year, 48 students have been suspended for vaping on Loudoun County public school campuses. That’s up significantly over the previous school year, when only three students were suspended for vaping.
The school system has had a policy on the books since 2014 stating that electronic cigarettes are prohibited on school property. Mid-way through this school year, in October, the School Board adopted a new policy that consolidates the guidelines for alcohol, drug, tobacco and electronic cigarettes use into one policy. It also outlines the consequences of students caught vaping on school property, with punishments ranging from three days of in-school detention and mandatory substance use education courses to five days of out-of-school suspension. They can also face legal consequences; in the U.S., the legal age to buy vaping products is 18, similar to cigarettes.
[See related Parenting with Purpose column: So Your Teen is Vaping. Now What?]
As Loudoun school leaders saw more students vaping in recent years, they added a session on e-cigarettes to their Family Life Education courses.
Bennett leads that part of the FLE course for sixth-graders at Simpson Middle School in Leesburg. He teaches students what is actually in the vape juice—most commonly glycerol, propylene glycol, nicotine, and benzoic acid—shows them effective ways to say no to vaping, and helps them recognize the marketing tactics of vaping companies.
In the 1940s, his grandpa received a free pack of Lucky Strikes while serving overseas during World War II, Bennett said. “Now that very aggressive marketing campaign is focused on the younger user. … They make it seem less dangerous, make it look cool and offer flavors geared toward children.”
Some of the more popular flavors of the vaping liquid are cotton candy, mango and fruit medley.
“There’s not a man in a lab squeezing fresh fruit for this. This isn’t the miracle vitamin to smoking,” Bennett stresses to students. “This is a carcinogenic drug.”
And where are underage teens buying the product? Most likely online. Local law enforcement agencies have conducted sting operations where they hire young people to try to buy vaping products without an ID. “Refreshingly, none of the local shops sold it to these kids,” Bennett said. “But kids go online and order or ask their older siblings.”
A 17-year-old boy from Sterling, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not old enough to legally vape, said he buys the product online; the websites only require online buyers to check a box stating they are at least 18. The Sterling teen said he doesn’t recommend anyone vape, unless it’s an alternative to smoking cigarettes.
“I feel like I kind of started the vaping trend at my school…and it honestly upsets me when I see people start vaping,” he said.
For him, vaping became the lesser of two evils. He smoked cigarettes from sixth to eighth grade, until he tried vaping. He’s proud to say he hasn’t smoked a cigarette in three years.
“I am still definitely addicted to nicotine,” the teen said, noting that it helps him keep anxiety and depression at bay. “I could see a time in my life when I would stop vaping. I just don’t think that time is anywhere in the near future.”
Eric “Zootie” Sutton, who owns Zootie’s Vapors, said his shops in Paeonian Springs and Hagerstown do all they can to keep vape products out of the hands of minors. They ID every customer who looks younger than 40, and they are part of smoke-free advocate groups that work discourage underage vaping and tobacco use.
“We’re in the business to support adults,” Sutton said. “We want people off of cigarettes because we know without a doubt that smoking kills. We want to provide this choice for adults.”
Sutton considers himself a vaping success story. After smoking three packs a day, he started vaping six years ago and he hasn’t touched a cigarette since. Some of his past customers have been heavy cigarette smokers who found vaping and were eventually able to quit smoking all together.
“I breath better, I don’t have asthma, I’m not getting sick as often,” Sutton said. “This has helped me, and I want to help others.”
A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine states that the devices are safer than traditional smoking products and may help smokers quit. On the other hand, the panel reported that vaping with e-cigarettes that contain nicotine can be addictive and that teenagers who use the devices may be at a higher risk of smoking.
Bennett agrees that vaping is a better alternative to cigarettes, particularly for heavy smokers trying to quit. His passion for warning young people about the dangers of substance abuse to prevent them from addiction stems from his own addiction to tobacco at a young age. He started smoking cigarettes at 14 and, 30 years later, was diagnosed with cancer.
“I beat it and then I decided to help prevent others from making the same decisions I did,” he said.
Lauren, a mother of a Stone Hill Middle School student, suggests those tempted to vape do what she did. After her 14-year-old daughter suggested to friends at school that they vape over trying drugs because it’s safer, she started researching the product. She later sat her daughter down and asked her to do an online search for vaping accidents.
“There’s these really graphic images with people with holes in their cheeks. It basically scared her to death,” Lauren said. She still remembers being convinced to never smoke when she saw her teacher use a sponge to soak up tar as an illustration of how tobacco effects smokers’ lungs. “Now, they’re marketing this as the safe alternative to cigarettes, and I think that’s the problem.”
“The tobacco industry is not done yet,” Bennett said. “They’ve traded their gloves and their coming after our kids with a left hook and a right. I just hope it will trend out.”