Old Lyme forum addresses popularity, dangers of vaping

Old Lyme — Teenagers in Connecticut and across the country are inhaling nicotine vapor products under their parents' and teachers' noses, and many young e-cigarette users are under the false impression that "vaping" is safe. 

"There's so many people that do it," said Connor Hogan, a Lyme-Old Lyme High School sophomore, at a forum on vaping Tuesday night. "There's so few that don't do it."

Before school officials caught on, Hogan said kids would crowd around in the locker room and vape. Other kids do it in class and blow the vapor into their sweatshirts.

"What's so difficult is that when kids vape these products, there really is no odor," said Mary Seidner, director of the Lyme-Old Lyme Youth Services Bureau. "They're not inhaling smoke. They're not inhaling tar. It's a vapor, so it can be done in class, on the bus and in the back seat of the car. They're doing it in their homes, too."

One nicotine vapor product, JUUL, is so popular that it has its own verb, "JUULing." JUUL looks like a USB flash drive and contains a battery that can be charged on a laptop, so parents may not be aware it is a vaping device. The liquid vapor pods that go into the device are sold in a variety of flavors appealing to young people, including mango, cool mint, crème brulee and fruit medley. Other vape devices look like cigarettes or pens and can be used to smoke marijuana juice and other substances.

"When you see someone smoking a cigarette, you say, 'Oh, that's gross,' '' said Keelin Hurtt, a high school senior. "When you see someone doing a JUUL, it doesn't have that gross aspect."

The youth services bureau included a specific question about JUUL on its biennial survey about substance use, and 40 percent of high school seniors reported having tried electronic cigarettes, Seidner said. Regionally, 6 percent of high school students surveyed last year in 40 eastern Connecticut towns reported using e-cigarettes within the past 30 days, said Michele Devine, executive director of the Southeastern Regional Action Council (SERAC).

While considered less hazardous than smoking tobacco, e-cigarettes contain nicotine and a number of chemicals whose effect on the body has not yet been fully studied.

"Kids we are working with are definitely showing signs of addiction," Seidner said.

They report wanting to vape first thing in the morning and feeling jittery when they can't vape, she said. Some teens say they consume 1 to 1 1/2 pods of vapor a day, the nicotine equivalent of 1 to 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes. Parents are reporting that their kids don't feel vaping is dangerous, Seidner said.

The U.S. Surgeon General in 2016 identified e-cigarette use by young Americans as a major public health concern, noting users could become "tomorrow's cigarette smokers" and that nicotine use could be harmful to brain development. Use of e-cigarettes increased by 90 percent among high school students between 2011 and 2015, according to the report.

Lyme-Old Lyme schools Superintendent Ian Neviaser sent a letter to parents Friday outlining the district's concerns about e-cigarettes and the disciplinary policy for any students found using or possessing nicotine delivery devices. First-time offenders receive in-school suspension and are required to take a nicotine prevention education course offered by the youth services bureau. Athletes who are caught vaping are suspended from playing sports for two weeks. Subsquent offenses may result in suspension or expulsion.

"This is a national issue, and my colleagues across the state and nation are seeing this growing and dangerous trend," Neviaser said in a phone interview. "I think what's happening is the sales pitches of the e-cigarette companies are promoting this as something that's safe. While it may be safer than smoking cigarettes, it certainly is by no means safe. That's the dfference the kids aren't realizing."

The letter indicated there is significant evidence of e-cigarette use by high school students and that some middle school students also are experimenting with vaping.

Connecticut requires purchasers of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes to be 18 or older. On Tuesday, the  General Assembly's Public Health Comittee will hold a hearing on a proposal to raise the age to 21. Adults suspect older teens are buying vape products and reselling them to younger kids or that teens are buying the products online. 

Old Lyme police recently conducted a compliance check of the town's eight tobacco/e-cigarette sellers using an underage girl from another town, according to the youth services bureau. Four of the eight retailers sold products to the girl and received a visit from police — and a fine — a short time later. Future offenses would carry harsher punishments, up to losing their licenses.

Teens can easily purchase the products online by checking a box that asks whether they are 21 or older. The products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but marketing restrictions for manufacturers, which include tobacco giant RJ Reynolds, are not as strict as they are for cigarettes.

The starter kit for the JUUL is listed at $49.99 on the brand's Website. A four-pack of replacement pods is $14.99.

Nicotine patches and other smoking cessation products are not FDA-approved for use on children under 18, according to SERAC's Devine. Seidner said parents who suspect their children are addicted should work with their pediatrician and seek behavior modification techniques that enable the child to change their patterns of behavior. One strategy that has helped some adult smokers who feel they need something in their mouth is to substitute a lollipop or hard candy for a cigarette, she said.

k.florin@theday.com

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