The Vape Debate
How bad is vaping? And whose responsibility is it to keep kids from doing it?
By Todd VanSickle | Jan. 5, 2019
I have never smoked a cigarette.
Not even one puff.
I think it was the smell that turned me off. At an early age, the stench was burned into my memory.
I can’t think of one family member who didn’t smoke cigarettes.
On the weekends, I grew up going to smoky bowling alleys and BINGO halls with my grandparents. Road trips meant driving with the windows open just enough so my mom or dad could flick their ashes outside the vehicle. Sometimes the red hot embers would blow back into the car and lightly burn my sister and I.
“Dad,” I would yell, as I quickly extinguished the burning ash.
“Sorry, Son,” he would apologize snuffing out his cigarette in guilt, but it wasn’t long and he would light up another one.
In high school, I despised my peers who smoked.
After school they would take refuge at McDonalds in a booth just out of sight of the cashier. Puffing away and flittering their cigarette into a golden, tin ashtray supplied by the restaurant.
Before school, they would gather at a vacant wooded lot a couple blocks away named the “AT,” which stood for “Ash Tray,” out of sight from from any patrolling policemen. Stale cigarette smoke clung to their clothing and couldn’t be masked by cheap perfume in the sterile hallways and classrooms. Teachers quickly passed judgment and it was easy to identify the smokers with a quick sniff.
Despite never smoking, school officials thought I was a smoker because I lived with my grandfather who was a three-packs-a-day guy. No matter how many precautions I took to keep my clothing smoke-free, I still wreaked of unfiltered Pall Malls.
It is no surprise I hated smoking and avoided it throughout high school.
But things are different today, and kids are not smoking like they used to.
From 2011 to 2017, smoking declined among middle and high school students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, vaping is on the rise, and so are the concerns.
State of the Vape
The 2018 Monitoring the Future survey conducted by the University of Michigan found vaping among high school seniors increased from 27.8 percent in 2017 to 37.3 percent in 2018.
Unlike cigarettes, vaping is a lot easier to conceal, and it’s almost odorless and mess free — no butts to dispose of or ashes to contend with. Also, there are no laws prohibiting minors from the act of vaping; only to prevent them from purchasing.
Compared to cigarettes, many teens today see vaping as more appealing, discrete and innocuous, a mentality that has many northern Michigan school and health officials concerned. They disagree that vaping is harmless and have taken several steps to educate parents and students. Many parents and students believe there is too much unknown about vaping, including its long-term effects and its ingredients, while others say is a safer alternative than smoking cigarettes.
“For the youth, it has become a huge problem,” says Susan Pulaski, community health coordinator with the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, who is also the project coordinator for SAFE in Northern Michigan. “Most of the youth that are vaping have never smoked cigarettes. I don’t think they see vaping and smoking cigarettes as the same kind of drug. I think most of them know cigarettes have nicotine, but I don’t think they realize vaping has nicotine, and they believe it’s just water and not a problem.”
She added that there isn’t a lot of data about vaping because it is relatively new.
“As we continue to learn more, we need to educate them as well. It is not just water, it is really an aerosol in there that is being released,” Pulaski says. “I would like to get away from using the word vapor, because it is really aerosol. Aerosol has more of a meaning to them.”
Pulaski adds that the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t required companies to label ingredients on vaping products until recently.
“For a while, I think the youths were being misled,” she says.
Pulaski is unsure if vaping will lead to an increase of cigarette smokers.
“It is possible, but I think that they like all the flavoring of the vaping,” she says. “Besides them being addicted to the nicotine, they are very addicted to the flavoring. I think they will continue to vape. I think the issue is that these kids were never smokers.”
Steven Haselton is the owner of All about Vapor on South Airport Road in Traverse City. His store carries 164 different flavors of vape juices and an assortment of vaping devices. Blueberry vape juice is a popular seller. Starter packages run around $70 but can cost as much as $200. All about Vapor does not carry any tobacco products. Haselton said parents should take more responsibility when it comes to kids vaping.
“I feel the press is really beating up the vape industry and not the parents of the children that have the products in their hands,” Haselton says. “I have parents come in here, and I know damn well that they are not buying it for themselves. They are buying it for their kids. They come in with stuff written on their hands — a wish list.”
He says he takes several precautions to keep minors out of his store, including a sign on the front door that says, “No one under 18.”
“I card each and everyone that walks through this front door,” Haselton said. “If you don’t have a valid ID, get the fu** out of my store. If you show me a high school ID, I’m going to kick your ass out of my store.”
Haselton is adamant that his store only sells “American-made” products that do not contain any carcinogens. He says the vape juices he carries contain only nicotine, flavoring, vegetable glycerin, and propylene glycol.
“There is not a single solitary thing in vape juices that is harmful,” Haselton said. “Anything you get out of a gas station, like MarkTen by Marlboro, Vuse by RJ Reynolds or Juuls — those juices are made in China. They send toys with lead to the United States — what makes you think that the e-juices they are sending don’t have lead?”
Haselton grew up in the late ’70s and smoked cigarettes for 37 years until he started vaping.
“If vaping wasn’t around right now, what would those kids in high school be doing? They would be smoking. It is a nasty, dirty habit, and it kills you,” says Haselton. “I really don’t want teenagers vaping, but I would prefer that they vaped than smoke.”
The Great Unknown
Vaping as a safer alternative is a hard sell for Pulaski. She said there is too much that remains unknown about vaping. One of her main concerns is the frequency that kids are doing it.
“These kids are vaping from the time they get up in the morning. They are vaping in hallways, they are vaping in the bathrooms, they are vaping in the classrooms. Their bodies aren’t getting that break. So, when we do see some of that research, it is going to affect their health, because it is nonstop,” Pulaski said. “It is kind of like a repeat of the 1950s. It’s like we didn’t learn from it, and it’s happening all over again.”
Theresa Rowell, a respiratory therapist at Kalkaska Memorial Health Center, agrees that the effects of vaping are largely unknown but sees the long-term effects of cigarettes among patients every day, and that it raises a lot of red flags for vaping.
“We see a lot of smokers who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” Rowell said. “The scary part of vaping is the addictive component of nicotine; what is even more scarier is all the chemicals. What we’re seeing with people with chemical exposure, like people who have never smoked who have worked in factories and have been exposed to chemicals, is that they develop an idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of the lung tissue. I think that is what we are going to see with vaping, because we don’t know what they are adding to [vape juice].”
Janet is a Kalkaska High School sophomore who agreed to speak anonymously about vaping. Her name is changed because she didn’t want to get in trouble or be perceived as a narc by her peers. The 15-year-old tried vaping one time and has been reluctant to try it again. She vaped for the first time last summer, at a friend’s house. She said the flavor was something “fruity” and her friend got the vape device by having an older friend buy it for them.
“They asked me if I wanted a hit, so I did. I didn’t like it,” she said. “It made my head feel dizzy, and I threw up all over the place.”
Although vaping isn’t for her, she believes the appeal is the flavors and the buzz it gives the user.
“Some people might want to feel cool, but I think what brings them back for more is the flavors,” she said. “And the way it makes them feel. Some people like that feeling — not me.”
She adds that vaping is convenient because of its smell, which can easily be masked with perfume or even be mistaken as perfume.
“Smoking cigarettes or weed has a very strong distinctive smell,” Janet says. “With vaping, there are so many different flavors and smells. It’s something pleasant and not rank.”
She said vaping is rampant at her school, and students do it in between classes or in the bathrooms constantly.
“Everyone is doing it,” she said. “The jocks, the popular people, the emos, and stoners. I even know honors kids that do it that are in AP classes.”
The Kalkaska school district is well aware that vaping is widespread and a growing problem among its student body. Anti-vaping signs are posted in the halls, and a community meeting —billed as The Great Vape Debate — was held on Dec. 4.
The meeting, however, was poorly attended; rather than parents and teens, most of the attendees were school officials or law enforcement officers.
At the meeting, Regan Foerster, a deputy with the Kalkaska County Sheriff's Department, said he spends about two to four hours a day at Forest Area Community Schools speaking about vaping with students in small groups and in one-on-one sessions. He has had some success with creating dialogue and informing students about the dangers of vaping. He gains their trust by starting off the discussion by outlining the law.
“I tell them there is nothing illegal with what they are doing,” Foerester says. “There are no laws saying they can’t vape. If they are walking down the street and vaping, there is nothing I can do.”
It only becomes a problem, when students bring it to school, he adds.
“That is where they are going to answer for it — at school,” Foerester says, who has conducted searches at Forest Area schools.
Most schools in Northern Michigan have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to vaping: all vaping paraphernalia is banned from school grounds, and students found with any face suspension, and their vaping devices are confiscated and not returned.
The Boyne City High School handbook classifies vaping devices like marijuana pipe; vape juices are considered to be a “look alike” and are treated the same as a drug.
“We have a taken a strong stance,” Boyne City High School Principal Karen Jarema says. “We don’t do random searches, but we will do searches when there is reasonable suspicion. More searches are being done, because we know vape devices are being possessed.”
At Boyne High School, a first offense carries a five- to 10-day suspension, which is a violation of the school’s co-curricular policy making a student ineligible for co-curricular activities for 90 days.
Traverse City Area Public Schools have launched a pilot program that has vape detectors in various locations at Central High School and West Senior High. The detectors are connected to school WiFi, and monitors detect vapor in the air. The detectors have the ability to notify school officials when vapors reach a certain level. School officials say the technology is meant to deter students from vaping at school. If the program is successful, more detectors will be installed throughout TCAPS.
Other school districts will most likely be keeping an eye on the program’s success.
Another line of defense against vaping has been students themselves. SAFE in Northern Michigan has about 75 students from Antrim, Emmet, and Charlevoix counties. The students create public service announcements that are aired on television, online, and radio.
“They work on helping kids make good decisions,” Jarema said. “SAFE kids are spreading the word that not everyone is doing it. There needs to be a climate in their school that is saying it is not OK and is promoted by [all of] our students, because there are [some] students saying it is OK.”
Caitlin Williams is a Safe student at Harbor Springs High School.
“I do believe vaping is an issue with my peers, because vaping is seen as a safer alternative than smoking cigarettes,” said the high school junior. “Teens don't look into statistics and don't care about the logistics. That's what SAFE youth is trying to do — make teens aware, and parents, about the consequences of vaping.”
Pulaski has been coordinating town hall meetings about vaping at several high schools, including Charlevoix, Ellsworth, East Jordan, and Harbor Springs. One of the most recent meetings was held on Nov. 27 in Boyne City. Michigan State Police Trooper Corey Hebner and Pulaski gave presentations to about 25 attendees.
“It is a problem, and it is growing problem,” Pulaski said. “Parents are concerned and are coming out. They want to know about it. They don’t know what to look for.”
At the meetings, the presenters have several vaping devices on display to help educate parents to know what to look for. Depending on the company, vaping devices come in all shapes and sizes. They no longer look like traditional cigarettes, like some of the first e-cigarettes. Instead they are similar to a gadget that you might find in the electronic department at a store. To confuse things even more, a whole new vocabulary and lingo have developed around vaping, including words like mod, drip tip, and juice, to name a few.
“[Vapes] have got very small and slim and look like a USB drive,” Pulaski said. “Unless parents know what they were looking for, they probably wouldn’t recognize it. They probably would think it was a flash drive in their backpack.”
More town hall meetings are scheduled in the coming year, but more needs to be done to combat vaping, according to Pulaski.
“There is just not enough long-term research that has been done,” she said. “And there probably won’t be for another 10 years. The parents need to do some research as well, because the schools can’t do it all.”