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Vaping: An epidemic among teens

Be aware of the health hazards

vaping, smoking, teens

The vape trend showed up fast, appearing right out of thin air full of flavors like strawberry, custard, mint and mango. In fact, there are over 7,500 tempting flavors that are perfectly designed to appeal to teens and mask an addictive health hazard.

Now parents, educators and health professionals need to address the wave that kids and vape merchants have been riding for a while. One big problem is that vaping arrived with the misguided message that if it's smoke free, it must be harmless.

But experts are pushing back with a definite no - vaping has all the worst aspects of smoking and plenty more.  

Cristine Groenewegen has navigated the teen years with her own her kids now 18, 23 and 26 and currently works as a community educator for the Council on Addiction and Prevention and Education of Dutchess County. In that capacity she's worked with hundreds of parents anxious to get their kids through adolescence as happily and healthily as possible.

Groenewegen describes vaping as an epidemic.

"Students as young as middle school age are vaping during school hours".

An epidemic in the schools

Vaping devices include e-cigarettes, which resemble smoked cigarettes, vape pens, which resemble large fountain pens, and advanced personal vaporizers also known as MODS.

Ellen Reinhard, director for Tobacco Free Action Communities (TFAC) in Ulster, Dutchess, Sullivan at HealthAlliance Hospital says TFAC has heard from several school principals and superintendents that vaping has moved from experimental to a regular habit for many students.

In describing the situation, Reinhard references to the JUUL brand, the most popular e-cigarette in the United States at the end of 2017 according to the Food and Drug Administration.

"Schools are finding students as young as middle school age vaping during school hours in bathrooms, on the bus and in the school yard," Reinhard says. Some high schoolers are vaping an entire JUUL pod per day which contains the rough equivalent of the nicotine in one pack of cigarettes."

READ MORE: The current age of a new smoker is 13. Could your kids be tempted to start?

These experiences are not unique. Reinhard says, the local scene reflects national trends. The latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows more than 60 percent of students in the U.S. will try vaping by twelfth grade and 35 percent of twelfth graders have vaped in the past month.

"Many schools have recently updated their smoking policy to include vaping, as a result," Reinhard says. "This action alone clearly indicates that vape use has expanded among youth."

Pick up on the clues

As part of her work Groenewegen manages Blindspots, a program designed to help parents pick up clues to teen substance abuse. The program goes into schools or other community venues and creates a mock teen bedroom stocked with items that may indicate a child is using or experimenting with alcohol, drugs or tobacco - and recently vaping has been added to the list.

During the program, parents are invited to search the room to see if they can identify telltale signs of substance use. Afterwards, a Powerpoint presentation and discussion helps parents continue to explore their concerns.

A recent Blindspots program in Wappingers Falls drew over 100 parents searching for answers and support. There was a similar turnout at a Dover Union Free School District event.

"It's hard to know what to do," says Groenewegen, adding that at these meetings she often encounters parents in tears about their teens' unhealthy behaviors. "We don't have all the answers, but we try to get the facts out."  

Reinhard warns parents of clues that could mean their child is vaping. She says, "A change in behavior, increased thirst, sensitivity to caffeine, and increased coughing, are just some of the signs. You may also notice some unfamiliar sweet smells in the air, see unexplained cotton balls, batteries, and springs laying around."

READ MORE: Think your child is experimenting with drugs?

Parents should also check on items that look like a zip drive - this may in fact be an e-cigarette charger that can plug into a computer.

E-cigarettes are not safe

There's a good chance that your teen might not have the best information about e-cigarettes and parents need to be armed with facts.

"E-cigarettes are not safe," Reinhard says. "They contain liquid nicotine, not just flavoring and some herbs; and nicotine is the highly addictive chemical that is present in all tobacco products including e-cigarettes."

Side effects of the many chemicals that are involved range from irritation all the way to cancer. "People who vape have the same level of short-term inflammation and lung damage as regular smokers," says Reinhard.

"The problem is that many of our kids who are using e-cigarettes have no idea they are addicting themselves to nicotine. Because of the hundreds of flavors, they believe it is just nice tasting flavored water, but they are setting themselves up for a possible lifelong addiction to nicotine."

E-cigarettes allow users to make large clouds that many think are just water vapor. The "cloud" is a mixture of many different chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde. Aside from containing poisons and the addictive chemical, nicotine, many of the flavors have harmful additives.

Educate yourself, get the message to your kids

For parents, she explains, the first part of the discussion is to remind your kids that it's still illegal for you to use. The law says you must be 21 or over to purchase tobacco products, paraphernalia and electronic cigarettes.

Reinhard says, "Currently six of seven counties in the Hudson Valley, including Ulster, Sullivan, Orange, Rockland, Westchester and Putnam counties, have adopted a Tobacco 21 local law."

Parents need to first educate themselves, Reinhard says. "Reach out to your local council or coalition and get as much information as you can, and then talk to your child."

Find healthy alternatives

Reinhard also emphasizes that it's important to help kids find healthy alternatives to the stresses of growing up. "Create positive activities and opportunities for young people with all types of interests - both in school and the community. Talking about issues will only lead to a better understanding of how to address it."

Olivia L. Lawrence works as an editor for a news organization.

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