“Grown-ups don’t know about them.”
That alone would make e-cigarettes addictive to kids, but Pitman High School senior Bree Wheeler’s comment carries even wider implications. Regulations surrounding vapor-makers remain hazy, with teens easily circumventing age restrictions to buy them and inhaling right under the noses of watchful adults.
Electronic cigarettes – what the kids call hookah pens – are battery-powered devices that provide doses of nicotine and/or flavoring in an aerosol. Flavors include fruit, chocolate, popular candies, alcohol, coffee, pizza and bacon with syrup. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans such fun flavors from cigarettes expressly because of their appeal to children.
“As a parent, you should be very concerned,” Gil Ogden, director of student services for Turlock Unified School District. Last week Turlock became the second school district in Stanislaus County to update its policies to address electronic cigarettes.
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Tiny Chatom Union School District was the first, said Charmaine Monte of the Stanislaus County Office of Education. Monte coordinates anti-tobacco education efforts through a three-year, $2 million grant, which supports anti-tobacco clubs at schools.
Wheeler belongs to Pitman’s PHAST – Protecting Health and Slamming Tobacco – Club, pronounced “fast.” Club members help burn in the message that those slick, colorful pens with the fun-flavored liquids may not smoke up a room like cigarettes, but they still hold health hazards for teens.
“They look kid-friendly. They’re just geared for us,” Wheeler said. “No adult’s going to smoke a bubble-gum flavored cigarette.”
“Everyone thinks there’s no dangers, but because there’s no regulation, you don’t know,” said fellow PHAST member Kuda Gwasira, also a senior.
Once kids know what’s in cigarettes, they see them as gross, said Pitman sophomore Deenpal Kaur. Toilet bowl cleaner and rat poison are among them, said Kaur, who with classmate Taylor Beckwith sits on the youth board of the California Youth Advocacy Network.
While selling the devices to minors is illegal, statistics show the mushrooming market is sucking in young patrons in alarming numbers. Use among youth double between 2011 and 2012. A 2013 report by Legacy released May 1 found 14 percent of high schoolers had tried e-cigarettes, as had 39 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds.
In Turlock Unified schools, the greatest percentage of students found with e-cigarettes was at Dutcher Middle School. Some 15 students were caught with the devices at Dutcher, compared with six at Turlock Junior High School, which has twice as many students. At high schools, 12 Pitman students, seven Turlock High teens and one Roselawn continuation student were snagged with e-nicotine contraband.
The numbers are deceiving, however, as older students and more sophisticated rebels have gotten adept at hiding their use, Ogden said. Teens said they’ve spotted schoolmates sucking on what looks like a pen, breathing the vapor into their jackets, even in class.
The Turlock policy prohibits “cigarettes, cigars, miniature cigars, clove cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, snuff, chew packets, betel (chew made from a palm nut) and electronic delivery systems such as e-cigarettes, e-hookahs and other vapor-emitting devices.”
Before the unanimous vote, Turlock board member Barney Gordon noted the wording bans the devices for everyone. “The can’t even bring them on campus,” he said.
“It’s not for me to decide what adults do or don’t do, but when it comes to kids and their health – I support this,” said board member Frank Lima.
But the devices are not banned in office buildings or restaurants like traditional tobacco products, adding to their allure for smokers. They often are marketed as a healthy alternative to smoking, or a far less noticeable way to keep smoking. This spring the FDA proposed extending its regulatory reach to cover e-cigarettes.
Illicit drugs also can be used with the devices, which has led to classifying them as drug paraphernalia. The tiny heater serves as “the perfect delivery vehicle” for distillations of marijuana and hashish, Ogden said, greatly concentrating their potency.
The slim metal devices can charge on computers. One popular brand comes in cases shaped like cigarette packs that vibrate if they come near each other. Some are sneaky, coming in containers that look like asthma inhalers, soda cans, lipsticks or permanent markers.
All are readily available online, and grown-ups really don’t know, the teens said.
“One of our teachers found one on the ground and he didn’t know what it was. We had to tell him,” said Pitman sophomore Taylor Beckwith. The teachers starting asking the class if anyone had lost a pen, holding up the device, when students realized what it really was and clued him in, she said.
Mini-videos of vapor tricks can be found in quantity on YouTube. One with 3.5 million views shows a young man making smoke rings and filling bubbles with smoky vapor. Ads use celebrities and cartoon characters, sexy scenes and sports sponsorships, with industry spending reaching an estimated $82 million in 2013, in the Legacy report.
“It looks fun. It looks cool,” Wheeler said.
Learning about the devices through the PHAST trainings has made them more aware, they said. “It made me notice how much of it is around, Beckwith said.
Gwasira said he knows teens that vape. “I tell them, ‘I understand you’re doing it. Now you’re like the publicist for the company,’ ” he said.