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As Vaping Use Grows Among Teens, Public Health Groups Try to Clear the Air on Dangers

Prevention challenges include easy access to e-cigarettes, lack of marketing restrictions and ‘safe’ reputation

Edwin Weaver, executive director of Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, reviews data on teen use of e-cigarettes and e-juice, like the samples in front of him. Weaver warns that the electronic devices heat nicotine and flavor additives to the point that they actually become an aerosol. “It doesn’t become vapor,” he says. “It becomes aerosol. Aerosol has particulate matter in it, vapor does not.”
Edwin Weaver, executive director of Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, reviews data on teen use of e-cigarettes and e-juice, like the samples in front of him. Weaver warns that the electronic devices heat nicotine and flavor additives to the point that they actually become an aerosol. “It doesn’t become vapor,” he says. “It becomes aerosol. Aerosol has particulate matter in it, vapor does not.” (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is the first in a series on the use of electronic smoking devices in Santa Barbara County. Click here for the second story and click here for the third.]

The advent of electronic smoking devices has ignited a new host of headaches for those working to keep teenagers away from tobacco and drugs.

The gadgets were initially touted as a smoking cessation tool, but critics say e-cigarettes instead have become more popular than regular cigarette smoking among teens. Some use the devices to deliver various illegal drugs.

“We were winning the battle against tobacco use with kids,” said Edwin Weaver, executive director of Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, which serves as the state Tobacco-Use Prevention Education coordinator for Santa Barbara County.

Public health officials also are concerned about youth use of vaping products.

“I think the largest concern from the public health community is the alarming increase in uptake among youth users,” said Dawn Dunn, coordinator of the Tobacco Prevention Settlement Program under the county Public Health Department.

She said data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a high prevalence of “never users” — among both youths and adults — are experimenting and using electronic smoking devices.

“It’s an introductory or starter product,” Dunn said.

Known as e-cigarettes, vape pens and hookah pens, among other names, the devices are battery-powered and were introduced in the United States in 2007, quickly skyrocketing in popularity.

By November 2014, Oxford Dictionaries had declared “​vape” its word of the year. The definition means to inhale or exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device.

But the devices heat nicotine and flavor additives to the point that they actually become an aerosol to be inhaled.

“It doesn’t become vapor,” Weaver told Noozhawk. “It becomes aerosol. Aerosol has particulate matter in it, vapor does not.”

Products include “closed-system” devices that look like regular combustible cigarettes and are widely available at smoke shops and convenience stores.

Other users favor fancier vape pens that can be loaded with a selection of e-juices, which come in a variety of flavors and nicotine levels.

Hundreds of flavors are available, including banana, fruit punch, chocolate and cotton candy — clearly geared to children, not adults, Weaver noted. Some shops even offer a chance to mix your own flavor.

Julie Woessner, executive director and board president of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association, an advocacy organization for the right to use e-cigarettes, said she uses a bubble-gum flavor liquid for her vaping.

“Yeah, bubble gum,” the former cigarette smoker-turned-vape user said. “It’s delicious. As an adult, I still enjoy flavors.”

Niko Iverson, an employee of Cal State Vape, at 401 N. Broadway in Santa Maria, said he sometimes doesn’t use flavors.

Other times flavors fulfill a sweet-tooth craving.

“If I feel like having something sweet and unhealthy, I’ll vape that flavor instead, so it kind of curbs my urge to eat unhealthy foods because I can vape unhealthy flavor-types that aren’t actually unhealthy,” he explained.

“Instead of having ice cream at night I may have a cinnamon funnel-cake flavor.”

According to Weaver, most tobacco users start the habit between the ages of 12 and 19 when they are introduced to traditional combustible tobacco in the form of regular cigarettes.

“There’s been a long traditional effort to work with kids to get them not to start because nicotine is the most addictive substance we have,” he said. “It’s more addictive than heroin.

“If we can get people to not smoke during that window, it’s very likely they won’t ever smoke, which is a good thing,” he added.

Efforts paid off, as use of traditional tobacco by 11th-graders in California fell to 11 percent, Weaver said. Decades ago, the numbers of smokers once neared 50 percent.

While that number is falling, another is rising. In Santa Barbara County, 15 percent of 11th-graders reported using e-cigarettes in the last 30 days, and approximately 40 percent have reported trying them, according to the Santa Barbara County Healthy Kids Survey update for 2015.

Among seventh-graders, 8 percent reported trying e-cigarettes, the Healthy Kids Survey found.

“They think it’s harmless because all the advertisement says it’s vape, it’s mist, it’s water,” Weaver said.

Alcohol and marijuana once were the tops on the surveys taken by Santa Ynez Valley youth, but vaping and e-cigarettes now fall at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, with marijuana landing in the fourth spot.

“Something that was alarming to us is the use of tobacco whether with vaping or regular cigarettes doubled,” said Mary Conway, director of the Santa Ynez Valley Youth Coalition.

Through further investigation, officials discovered youths are “still using marijuana at a fairly high rate, but they are vaping it,” she said.

“We’re feeling like the culprit here is this new delivery system, which is kind of a toy to the kids in that they can do all sorts of things while puffing on that e-cigarette,” Conway said.

It’s not just marijuana. A new trend has seen vape pens become vessels for imbibing other legal and illegal dangerous  drugs.

“It’s a pretty frightening trend that we’re seeing,” Conway added.

E-cigarette companies have unrestricted marketing, and their advertising is now everywhere youths are, with a social-media presence and smartphone apps.

“They’re very savvy,” Weaver said.

Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, its Santa Barbara counterpart operated by the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse, and other groups are working to inform teens, parents and educators about the concerns.

Iverson, who started smoking tobacco as a teen and stopped after taking up vaping, said his store does not sell to anyone under 18 years old.

Niko Iverson, an employee at Cal State Vape in Santa Maria, blows a vape ring for a visitor. Iverson started smoking cigarettes as a teenager but stopped after taking up vaping. “There’s not necessarily laws that prohibit teens from vaping at this point and time, but we do not endorse it,” he says. Click to view larger
Niko Iverson, an employee at Cal State Vape in Santa Maria, blows a vape ring for a visitor. Iverson started smoking cigarettes as a teenager but stopped after taking up vaping. “There’s not necessarily laws that prohibit teens from vaping at this point and time, but we do not endorse it,” he says. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“If they look under 30 we card them,” he said.

“There’s not necessarily laws that prohibit teens from vaping at this point and time, but we do not endorse it,” he added.

Some teenagers show up with their parents, who say they would rather know what the youths are doing instead of having them hide the habit.

“I tell them, ‘Well, you know this is a smoking cessation system, not a fad,’” Iverson said. “They’re like ‘Well, we’d rather have our children doing something in front of us than hiding it behind our backs.’”

Vaping also has sparked competitions involving creating vape clouds, akin to old smoke rings. Videos are all over YouTube, and contests and conventions are held for competitive cloud chasing.

“That’s very concerning because it turns it more into a game,” said Selena Rockwell, youth services specialist director with the Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse.

While regular tobacco products are regulated, vaping liquid products, known as “e-juice,” are not.

“There is nobody who is chemically testing what’s in here,” said Weaver, holding a bottle of e-juice.

One bottle claims to have 24 milligrams of nicotine while another claims to have no nicotine.

“No one’s saying, yeah, the people selling this are actually providing this nicotine free,” Weaver added.

One of the biggest efforts for those working with teenagers is getting the message to parents.

Even with restrictions, vapes and e-juice can be purchased online with little proof or hassle. Eighteen-year-olds will buy them legally and sell the products to younger people.

The swift emergence of the vaping industry meant school regulations didn’t initially cover the phenomenon.

“We were still catching up with the trends and having to change the discipline policy at the school so that it included vape pens,” Weaver said. “That was challenging. We’ve done a lot to educate teachers about vape pens and the school as a whole.”

A training session before the new school year gave teachers the opportunity to see and hold vape pens, including one that looked like a marker.

“A big piece is educating the kids to know that they’re not allowed, and there’s a reason they’re not allowed,” Rockwell said. “It’s  because they’re drug-delivery devices — whether it’s nicotine or other substances.

“That’s a big piece, the education and awareness.”

The topic of vaping is included in regular town hall meetings held for parents on assorted trends, and mentioned in a newsletter article spelling out the dangers and how parents can talk to their children about them.

“I think it’s important for them to address it just like they would any other substances,” said Rockwell, who urged parents to open the conversation with children.

“Just opening up the conversation about it and letting them know there are dangers to it — there are chemicals in vape pens that haven’t been researched yet,” she said.

“We don’t know what the harm is but there are chemicals that are going in when you are heating up the element. That’s going into your system and you don’t even know what the effects are.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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