BRISTOL, R.I. (WPRI) – Nearly one in five high school students used e-cigarettes in 2015, far outpacing the use of other tobacco products, according to data from the R.I. Department of Health.
The Dept. of Health’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey has been assessing the adolescent behavioral health risks of public school students grades six through 12 since 1995.
That data also shows a steady decline in the use of other tobacco products, like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and cigars, among high school and middle school students.
Vincent Turchetta, dean of students at Mt. Hope High School in Bristol, said he’s noticed an increase in e-cigarette use, or vaping, on campus. “Definitely out of control. It is a craze,” Turchetta said.
Dr. Jack Rusley is a physician at Rhode Island Hospital who specializes in pediatric adolescent medicine, he said vaping is just as addictive as tobacco cigarettes.
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“The problem is it depends a lot on the nicotine content in the vape juice, we often have no idea how much nicotine is in these products,” said Rusley.
Rusley said part of the problem of e-cigarette use among teens is how accessible e-cigarettes are. “It’s much more available and much easier to get than traditional tobacco cigarettes,” he said. “You know in schools it’s much more difficult to smell these products.”
Turchetta said there have been only two instances of students getting caught vaping at Mt. Hope so far this year. But he said that just because kids aren’t getting caught, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.
“I hope we get the word out there,” Turchetta said. “I hope our kids become more educated.”
“We confiscate the paraphernalia, which is very expensive by the way, then we refer them to a substance abuse counselor,” Turchetta said. “The chemicals that they’re inhaling in their body, I mean, it’s ridiculous – they have no clue.”
Dr. Rusley said they don’t yet know all of the chemicals that vaping produces, but the ones that they are aware of – are alarming. “Some of the things that have been detected are polyethylene glycol,” he said. “Other things [detected] are components in things like anti-freeze – things that have been known to cause cancer in animals.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarettes generally contain fewer toxic chemicals than regular cigarettes, but studies have shown some e-cigarette flavoring could contain chemicals linked to lung disease, or heavy metals like nickel and lead.
“You know the analogy that I use is that it’s a little like putting a bomb in your mouth,” Rusley said. “With tobacco cigarettes we kind of know when the bomb is going off and how big the bomb is with vaping we have no idea.”
Ray Story, a spokesperson for the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association – a trade group representing the e-cigarette industry – said the association is against underage vaping and is pushing for a national law requiring age verification for anyone buying vaping products. He said they are also against e-cigarette flavors that appeal to minors like bubble gum or cotton candy.
Story added electronic cigarettes are “vastly less harmful than tobacco,” and that vaping has played a major role in the decline in conventional tobacco smoking in recent years.
A new law that bans e-cigarette use on school grounds goes into effect in Rhode Island next month. It also requires child resistant packaging for the liquid nicotine used in e cigarettes, which can be deadly if ingested.
“Young children who find these vape juices lying around the house and drink this stuff because it’s bubble gum flavored, candy flavored,” Rusley said. “There’s actually been a couple case reports of children dying from nicotine overdose.”
At Mt. Hope High School and at other schools, the risks associated with vaping have now become a part of the curriculum of health education classes.
“I think the important piece is what happens after an infraction happens, what you do and what you say,” Turchetta said.
“There certainly is evidence that vaping is harmful. I think there’s more evidence that needs to be gathered around what it can do to teenage brains,” Rusley said.
“We know that nicotine can impact a developing brain in a negative way.”