Bay State Buckles Down to Curb Teen Vaping Epidemic

Joan Goodchild

Today’s parents grew up with plenty of education about the dangers of smoking. While we may have known adults who smoked, we were warned about how harmful it is to our health. And it appears to have worked, as cigarette smoking has fallen to its lowest point in recorded history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today just 14 percent of adults in the U.S. (about 34.3 million people), smoke cigarettes. This is down a whopping 67 percent from 1965.

But while tobacco use may have declined, health advocates fear it has been replaced with another vice: electronic cigarettes. The use of e-cigarettes, also called vaping, has jumped dramatically in recent years – particularly among teens. A report from the US Food and Drug Administration and the CDC found 3.6 million teens reported being current e-cigarette users in 2018, a jump from 1.5 million the year before.

Here in Massachusetts, officials are now referring to vaping as an epidemic among young people. The state recently raised the minimum age to buy vapes from 18 to 21, and some towns have even banned the sale of e-cigarettes completely. Dr. Monica Bharel, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, reports more than 40 percent of high school students and nearly 10 percent of middle school students in the state have tried vaping.

“They don’t understand that these are oil based. They think it is healthy, especially since vaping was originally promoted as a way to quit smoking,” said Tina Grosowsky, Project Coordinator for The Central Massachusetts Tobacco-Free Community Partnership.

The e-cigarettes, which are available in a variety of flavors like mango and cherry, are appealing to kids because they initially seem cool and fun, she said. Teens are not educated about the chemicals in the inhaled vapor and often have no idea that they include intense levels of highly-addictive nicotine, which they’re taking in every time they take a hit.

“Their perception of risk or harm is low,” she said.

Grosowsky believes perception is hurdle number one in tackling the problem of teen vaping. Because of the decline in smoking and tobacco use, most kids have grown up with little to no exposure to adults smoking. The message about addiction, and the potential long-term damage that vaping can cause, is lost on them. Now many find themselves hooked on the nicotine and are sneaking hits off of their vape pen in classrooms, or visiting the school bathroom multiple times a day to vape to get the nicotine high. Much of this goes on with no awareness from adults.

“Because of how these work, kids can sit in the back of the class and blow the vapor into a sleeve or swallow it so a teacher isn’t seeing clouds of vapor in the back of the room,” Grosowsky said. “Kids can be walking down the hall using it, or on the bus.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey launched an investigation last year to determine if JUUL Labs, Inc. and other online e-cigarette retailers are marketing their products to minors. The AG’s Office also sent cease and desist demands to two online companies that host three websites who were allegedly selling the vaping products without age verification.

The state also launched a health campaign called "The New Look of Nicotine" directed at students, parents and school administrators that aims to educate on the risks of vaping. While it’s too early to say if campaigns and laws will have any effect on vaping rates, health experts said talking to your teen today about e-cigarettes risks and nicotine addiction can go a long way toward prevention.