The number of Edmonds School District students using e-cigarettes — a practice known as vaping — has increased dramatically in recent years. In response, a district parent group last week hosted an information night for parents and students aimed at dispelling myths about these products.
According to a 2018 survey by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes rose significantly nationwide from 2017 to 2018. During that same time period, usage increased 75 percent in the Edmonds School District, said Monica Wheaton, president of Parent Leaders for the Edmonds School District.
“It’s sort of sneaking up on people and there’s so much miseducation, because the kids think it’s just water that they’re smoking,” she said.
E-cigarettes are tobacco products delivered through battery-operated devices that aerosolize liquid nicotine. The products are often thought to be a “safer” alternative to smoking tobacco, but vaping comes with its own share of concerns, said Arti Patel, Public Health Education Director for the Washington Poison Center, who spoke during the information night.
“It’s not just an Edmonds issues, it’s not just a Washington state issues, it’s a national issue,” she said.
Lack of regulation and easy accessibility were among the concerns from parents who attended the event. Another worry was marketing that targets minors. E-cigarettes offer a wide variety of flavored liquid nicotine that look like candy with labels that only name the flavor, but not the ingredients.
“They see they flavors, but don’t realize the flavors are chemicals, so they don’t see any harm to their bodies,” Wheaton said.
A common misconception about vaping is that e-cigarette users are exhaling water vapor, but Patel said that is not the case. The vapors contain ultrafine particles that are absorbed into the lungs at a cellular level, causing lung tissue damage that combustible tobacco products do not. This could result in future health issues — like lung cancer — that some people hoped to avoid by vaping in the first place, Patel said.
E-cigarettes are not just a hazard when inhaling harmful chemicals. The devices are powered by lithium ion batteries, which have made headlines as a source for explosions in devices they power — including e-cigarettes. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 243 e-cigarettes have exploded, one of which resulted in a death.
With Patel to explain the dangers of vaping devices was Tara Previte, who was injured after her e-cigarette exploded.
“It was something that I knew could happen, but I didn’t know it could happen to me,” she said.
After the mishap, Previte’s nose required reconstructive surgery, she has scars on her neck and face and hearing damage, and she has lost her sense of smell and sense of taste. She also lost teeth and has permanent respiratory issues.
“It’s definitely taken a toll,” she said.
However, Previte said her experience was the least severe case she has heard. She said she has known two other people who have suffered injuries from exploding e-cigarettes — one man who lost a part of his jaw and another man who lost part of his leg.
Penalties at Edmonds Woodway High School for getting caught with tobacco or marijuana products — which e-cigarettes can be used for as well — range from an in-school intervention to suspension. Students who are caught with marijuana products on campus risk being denied federal grants or student loans for college in the future. Edmonds-Woodway High School Assistant Principal Andrea Collins said that a recent in-school intervention for a student caught with an e-cigarette helped the student realize how harmful vaping can be.
“In that social group the student is now almost an advocate, saying ‘we shouldn’t do it because we don’t know what we’re doing to our own bodies,’” she said.
The current legal age to purchase e-cigarettes is 18 years old, but the Washington State Legislature recently passed a proposal to raise the age of smoking and vaping to 21 years old. In spite of the age restrictions for purchasing e-cigarettes, Collins said students still trade them at school or share them with friends.
In hoping to minimize the number of students vaping, Collins said the most effective methods are at the peer level.
“The student-to-student connection is a lot more powerful,” she said. “With our student leadership, I think that’s where we can see a greater change.”
–Story and photo by Cody Sexton