Vaping Becomes 'e-cigarette Epidemic'
- Oct 17, 2018 -
E-cigarettes simulate the feeling of smoking without the baggage of combustible tobacco. The two main attractions to vaping are the feeling of smoking cigarettes and getting nicotine, which is the addictive ingredient that makes it so hard to quit. The liquid in e-cigarettes contains varying amounts of nicotine, which smokers can reduce as the urge to smoke lessens.MEG MCLAUGHLIN /

The trend was born of good intentions.

E-cigarettes simulate the feeling of smoking without the baggage of combustible tobacco.

Some e-cigarettes, handheld electronic devices, look like cigarettes while others are larger devices that fit in your hand like a small box. Most work the same: An internal coil heats a liquid to create an inhalable vapor.

That is why it’s called vaping.

The idea was to give smokers an out — an alternative to ingesting tobacco and the tar, carbon monoxide and at least 70 related chemicals known to cause cancer.

Vaping started as a step-down method to quit smoking.

But it has backfired.

FDA: ‘E-cigarette epidemic’

The two main attractions to vaping are the feeling of smoking cigarettes and getting nicotine, which is the addictive ingredient that makes it so hard to quit.

The liquid in e-cigarettes contains varying amounts of nicotine, which smokers can reduce as the urge to smoke lessens.

But vaping has become an attractive habit to non-smokers, too, including an increasing number of teenagers.

And that’s what worries the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA.

Studies by the agency revealed that about 2 million high school and junior high students have discovered vaping. And that’s just the number admitting it.

From 2011 to 2017, according to the FDA, e-cigarette use among high school students rose from 1.5 percent to 11.7 percent.

And that caused alarm, because past generations that were hooked in high school on smoking now are becoming hooked on vaping for the same reason — the addictive nature of nicotine.

In fact, nicotine frequently is said to be as addictive as heroin or cocaine.

In September, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, a physician, declared that e-cigarette use by teens has reached epidemic proportions.

“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,” he wrote. “ It’s simply not tolerable.

“I’ll be clear. The FDA won’t tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a tradeoff for enabling adults to have unfettered access to these same products.”

Mike Zimmer, principal at Pleasant Valley High School, already was noticing a big increase in vaping and was becoming alarmed. The FDA’s announcement confirmed his suspicions.

“When the whole vaping thing started several years ago, I saw it rarely; once or twice a year,” he said Friday. “I’m not sure what triggered it but, all of a sudden, we had kids trying to hide it in the hallways.”

“One student showed me a video of kids vaping in class. I thought: What in the heck is going on? All of a sudden, it was everywhere.”

Teens and JUUL

When Zimmer saw the FDA commissioner’s alarmed warning, he forwarded the concerns to Pleasant Valley parents.

“The whole thing just smelled wrong and looked wrong, and I wasn’t going to just wait around,” he said. “We’re about educating, and that’s not just kids.”

He wrote to parents about the pitfalls of vaping, the “epidemic” declaration by the FDA, and he shared that 14 of his students had been charged with illegal possession or use of e-cigarettes in just a few months’ time.

And that’s saying something, considering that many e-cigarettes, especially those preferred by teens, can be exceedingly discreet.

While the much larger vaping devices can emit great clouds of vapor (often emitting scents from the flavored liquids), smaller e-cigs can be undetectable.

A trendy favorite among teens today is called JUUL. It’s a techie-looking device that in no way resembles a cigarette. Though most in-store and online retailers attempt to regulate sales and distribution to adults, the JUUL craze brings out the resourcefulness in underage users.

“We used to get calls just about every day,” said Todd Smith, franchise president of the local Vaporosity Shop chain. “The kids wanted to know if we had JUUL. But we don’t get a lot anymore.

“I think we established early on that we’re very strict.”

In addition to the warning posted on the door at the Brady Street Vaporosity Shop (“If you are 27 years old and under, have ID ready & in hand”), the JUUL is not on the shelves at Brady Street, nor is it sold at the West Locust Street store.

“JUUL is what all the kids are using, and I choose to stay away from them because I’m not jumping on the money bandwagon,” Smith said. “I don’t want a finger pointing at me.”

The Vaporosity Shop across from the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds is too close to Davenport West High School, Smith said, so he’s not taking any chances. The JUUL brand is sold at the store in the Hilltop area of Rock Island because it also appeals to the more mature college set at nearby Augustana.

“I’m totally for the FDA getting it out of kids’ hands,” he said. “They’re trying to get rid of the labels that appeal to kids, too. I agree with that 100 percent.”

Though the FDA is making a major production of e-cig abuse among minors, parents aren’t yet as savvy. And that’s partly because the JUUL looks so innocuous.

When Zimmer unwittingly stepped on a JUUL in the cafeteria at Pleasant Valley, he said, he thought he had stepped on a flash drive. When he brought it up to other principals, he said, they didn’t know what he was talking about.

And school officials have the most to fear, he said, because studies show JUUL is most prevalent in more affluent school districts because the devices are not inexpensive. According to the JUUL website, the “starter kit” is $49.99.

More than nicotine

The increasing risk of getting another generation hooked on nicotine is one concern.

The contents of the “juice” that is being vaporized and inhaled is another.

When Todd Smith opened one of the Quad-Cities’ first vape shops five years ago, the liquid he sold for his e-cigarettes and larger vaporizers was made in a friend’s kitchen. Though he now buys from suppliers who must report the contents of their products to the FDA, the agency has not yet determined what ingredients found in a vast array of liquids are safe for ingesting.

Liquid (the term “juice” has fallen out of favor) for vaping often contains “food grade” ingredients, so manufacturers have argued those ingredients already have been deemed safe. But the argument fails to hold up, given it is not known whether ingredients approved for eating also are safe for breathing.

“This is unregulated stuff that our kids are ingesting,” Zimmer said. “I noticed a digital sign no more than a block or two from North Scott High School (in Eldridge) that said, ‘Get your JUULs here.’”

For FDA Commissioner Gottlieb, the teen-vaping trend is not acceptable.

“We’re announcing the largest ever coordinated initiative against violative sales in the history of the FDA,” he said last month. “This is the largest single enforcement action in agency history. It’s aimed at retail and online sales of e-cigarettes to minors.”

As a last resort to fighting off the frightening trend, the FDA has warned, it may even might consider taking e-cigarettes off the market if makers don’t do more to stop exponential sales to teens.