Vaping illness has hit the headlines and is becoming a growing concern for parents of teens who are using the candy-flavored tobacco product. But this concern isn’t new for Tahoma School District leaders, who sent out a letter to parents in the spring warning about the increasing use of vape products among teenagers.
“The numbers come from the healthy youth survey that’s done every two years throughout the state,” Tahoma School District Spokesperson Kevin Patterson said. “The numbers that we mentioned, we had a story in our ‘Tahoma Matters’ newsletter in May, the numbers at that time came from the state-wide survey. There was more and more concern in the apparent rise in vaping among young people. So we wanted to get some information out to parents about that.”
Patterson took a look at some of Tahoma’s numbers and found them interesting. One of the questions on the survey, which students fill out anonymously, says “How many times have you used ‘X’” and then gives a list of products from cigarettes to vape pens to marijuana. Less than 4 percent of Tahoma 10th and 12th grade students used tobacco products in the last 30 days, but when it came to vaping it was 20 percent. Vaping use wasn’t just found in high school students, some elementary students also were caught vaping.
“So there’s definitely interest in vaping compared to using (other) tobacco products,” Patterson said. “This is necessarily using at school but somewhere in their day they are using this. Students are not allowed to use tobacco products at school.”
Originally, the law around vaping allowed anyone 18 or over to use the products, much like cigarettes. But recently the state law changed the minimum age to 21, meaning no students are legally using the product.
Vaping has become a national debate since the Center for Disease Control (CDC) started tracking the number of people becoming sick from a “vaping illness.” As of Sept. 17, there were 530 cases of lung injuries associated with vaping or using e-cigarettes, according to the CDC. Patients ranged from 38 states. Washington has seen seven cases of “vaping illness,” including two cases from King County. There have been eight deaths in the nation linked to these lung injuries, the CDC reported, five of which have been linked to THC cartridges. While tobacco vape products are regulated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), THC cartridges are not since marijuana products are still illegal on a federal level.
CDC data shows most patients have a history of smoking THC products through a vape pen, but others reported using both THC and tobacco products. According to the CDC’s website, it doesn’t know the specific cause of these lung injuries and its investigation has not identified any specific e-cigarette or vaping product (devices, liquids, refill pods and/or cartridges).
Vaping companies and organizations have been pushing back against the calls for bans on its products. The American Vaping Association posted a blog on its website on Monday, Sept. 23, titled “The Facts on ‘Vaping-Related’ Lung Illness and Deaths.” The organization promotes vaping tobacco products as a way for users to quit smoking cigarettes, and says users should not be worried if they are using “store-bought nicotine vaping products.”
“The evidence continues to indicate that poorly manufactured street vapes containing THC or other substances are to blame for these illnesses,” the American Vaping Association website states. “No adult smoker should be scared off from using store-bought nicotine vaping products to quit or reduce smoking. Nor should any vaper be misled into believing that relapsing back to smoking is a better option than continuing to vape.”
Despite the national debate, Patterson said parents should be asking their children about any drug habits they may have.
“Vaping has been on our radar,” Patterson said. “We are addressing that in ninth grade health classes. There is a part in the unit about marijuana use and now vaping use. Students watch a video and they also have conversations with the instructor and they go through an exercise to identify the short and long term negative issues surrounding use of nicotine and marijuana. So they have an opportunity to learn about vaping and the risks involved.”
Patterson thinks the rise in vaping is due to vaping’s increased popularity, reflecting the trends decades ago with cigarettes.
“The best advice is what our school nursing coordinator offered in the article we wrote,” he said.
The May article told parents how to discuss these habits with their students and what to look for if they believe their students are vaping. A lot of nicotine and THC vaping products are flavored like some students’ favorite candy, such as Starbursts and Jolly Ranchers.
“Vaping devices come in many shapes and sizes,” the May newsletter stated. “Some look very similar to USB flash drives, pens and other common items. Robert Talbert, Dean of Students at Maple View Middle School, said teachers and administrators have confiscated more than 50 vaping devices from students this year, which amounts to three times the number of devices collected last school year. At Glacier Park Elementary School, five students received discipline recently for using or possessing a vaping device.”
The best advice Tahoma gives? For parents to have a calm, one-on-one conversation with their children and teens about the potential dangers of vaping and underage drug use.
“Education is key to prevention and developing healthy habits,” Tahoma Nursing Coordinator Jennifer Lyons wrote in the newsletter. “Parents should look for opportunities to start a conversation, not lecture teens. Adolescent brains continue to develop until the age of 25 and nicotine can interfere with memory and attention processing. No parent wants a loss of memory or attention for his or her teen. The addictive nature of vaping messes with the one thing teens crave the most; independence. Drug addiction is losing your freedom of choice.”