In February and March, I had the privilege of addressing 217 students in one of the county schools (which I will not name in this article) to share information about the expected long-range impact of vaping on their lungs and the known short-term effects of nicotine on their developing brains.
At the end of each class the students completed an anonymous, six question survey of their personal vaping usage “since Christmas” and “during the year of COVID-19.”
The principal had invited me to do this prevention project because their school resource officer had reported that vaping was a growing problem among their student body, as measured by found vaping devices, video evidence of student usage and juvenile tobacco court records (Yes, that is a thing in McMinn County).
I saw an average of nine students at a time in a room with social distancing precautions in place, which created an excellent relational teaching situation. I used an evidence-based Power Point presentation that I had prepared with those students in mind.
A seven-page report, including three informative charts, was provided to the principal and to the McMinn County Health Department (the funding source for the prevention initiative).
The results were most interesting.
Two usage questions revealed that 17 students (8%) had vaped “5 or more times since Christmas” and that 47 students (22%) had vaped “1 or more times during the year of COVID.”
The numbers that had not vaped at all are worth reporting as well: Exactly 200 students said they had not vaped since Christmas and 170 had not vaped at all during the year of COVID.
A question about vaping during COVID asked the students to estimate the total number of times they had vaped during the past 12 months. Thirty-eight students reported that they had vaped no more than five times during that year and 71% of those indicated (in another question) that they would not vape again in the future.
This turned out to be the best news from those that had vaped minimally and may support the conclusion that lower past use could be a predictor of no future use for the majority, after exposure to factual information. Time will tell.
There were nine students that had vaped between 20 and 750 times during the past year. Specifically, three said 20 to 25 times, one said 50 times, one wrote the words “a lot,” one reported 200 times, one said “100s of times,” one said 500 times and one reported 750 times.
Of those nine students, two felt they were not addicted to vaping and seven felt they were addicted to vaping. In the report, and for specific reasons, I developed a usage profile for five of those that believed they were addicted to vaping.
My concern is that the five students I profiled in the report are also addicted to nicotine, which has real and lasting consequences in terms of future drug use, dependency and/or addiction. The research supporting that conclusion is overwhelming.
For instance, an article in the Journal of Adolescent Development is clear when it stated, concerning 14- to 17-year-old on-set users of nicotine, that “Nicotine changes the chemistry of the brain and makes one crave whatever their next drugs of choice might be.”
Those other drugs could be anything from alcohol to marijuana, and from prescription pills to street drugs. Other research is more specific to a relationship between teen nicotine addiction and a future use of certain street drugs, like cocaine.
In terms of gender, it is the girls that are currently (“since Christmas”) vaping the most and by far among the 8th grade girls. The surveys revealed that 30% of them had vaped “five or more times since Christmas.” No other grade level even came close to that number.
During the past year, the story is mixed with boys vaping as much as or a tad more than girls in the 4th, 5th and 7th grades and girls vaping more than boys in the 6th grade (one more than the boys) and especially in the 8th grade where 50% more girls vaped than did boys.
In terms of total numbers of usages, the heaviest usage was among the 8th graders, with 12 of the 16 reporting a first use age of 12 or older. Two of the other four had vaped at age “8 or younger,” one at age 9 and one at age 11. Tragically, the story is much worse among the 4th through 6th graders, where four had vaped at age 8 or younger, six at age 9, 10 at age 10, and six at age 11.
Clearly the younger children are experimenting or using in larger numbers at lower ages than did the current 8th graders that are using so much.
The lower ages of usage trend could predict even greater problems as those children age-up and could lead to serious issues before they reach high school.
The prospects of vape related issues and the possibility of their choosing to use other addictive drugs as they age-up is quite discouraging. In the aggregate, 47 students (22% of all students surveyed) reported having vaped in the past year. Twenty-six of those 47 past year users said they would likely vape in the future.
The worst way to say that is that one of every five students have vaped in the past year and that more than half of them said they would likely continue to vape.
However, that discouraging conclusion may be lessened by the finding that the “I have vaped 5 or more times since Christmas” question only discovered 17 students that had vaped in that period of time, which was a time frame of between 54 and 73 days, depending upon the actual date that the students were in the class and took the survey.
So, for a period of between seven and 10 weeks, only 17 students had vaped five or more times, far fewer than those expecting to vape in the future.
One can only hope that this one dose of education will have a lasting effect. But I write to ask all moms and dads, grands, aunties and uncles, every teacher of every elementary school student, the brothers and sisters of younger siblings, resource officers, physicians, dentists, coaches, youth directors and youth Sunday School teachers, tobacco retailers, and anyone else with a voice to join in the unison message that vaping is something that should be left to adults to decide about, in part because state law requires that a person be 21 years old or older to purchase vape products and in part because of the very real risks to their developing brains and their future lung health.
Please join me with the message that the ingredients in vape-juice have no place in the lungs and developing brains of children. This is true of commercial vape-juice, internet vape-juice, kitchen vape-juice, and any other category currently unknown to me.
Mike Womack is an independent public health educator and state certified drug and alcohol prevention specialist living and working during his “retirement” right here in McMinn County. He is available to share his vaping presentation with groups that might be interested.