Anya Gowda first learned about vaping through social media. She saw young people using the vapor produced by e-cigarettes to create shapes called “cloud-chasing” and do vape tricks.
“Even from the start, it was advertised as something cool to do, never something that was harmful,” the 18-year-old Egg Harbor Township High School senior said.
Like many her age, she thought it was just water vapor being expelled from the electronic smoking device. That false assumption has led to an alarming rise in the use of e-cigarettes, nicotine addiction and associated health issues nationwide, and a legislative response from both the federal and state governments, but ground level work is still being done in schools across the state to reverse the trend.
From teen organizations spreading awareness to their peers, to training for school employees, health organizations, nonprofits and law enforcement are teaming up to tackle the epidemic.
“I was a person who thought it was water vapor, too, but then I heard all these stories about kids and teens dying from doing it and then I was like, ‘Oh this is really serious,’” said one sophomore from Oakcrest High School who asked not to be named. “So I wanted to help spread awareness to my school and help kids who have an addiction to it stop in some way.”
More than 5 million young people are currently using e-cigarettes according to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey from the FDA and CDC.
Eileen Gavin, a school nurse in Monmouth County and executive board member for the New Jersey State School Nurses Association, said school nurses are the “boots on the ground” in combating teen vaping.
“They’re doing it so discreetly, we’re not seeing the vaping, but we’re seeing them passing out, breathing difficulties,” she said.
Gavin said that while the deaths and health issues related to vaping that became national news over the summer were tragic, they did bring more awareness to the topic, which she said is making a difference.
Gavin tries to talk to all her students about vaping when they come to her office, and parents, too, making referrals when necessary to quit lines or centers.
“It really has changed the way we practice,” said Gavin, who now must consider if a child’s illness or behavior is in any way related to vape products. “It’s always like, ‘Is this the result of vaping?’”
Many people are now interested in bringing prevention programs into schools. Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer said it was his own shock during a workshop more than a year ago regarding teen vaping that made him so invested, so he created an Escape the Vape Taskforce within his department. Last month, the office hosted a vaping training session in Toms River that brought out more than 140 interested local educators, guidance counselors, school resource officers and nurses.
Some legislative steps have also been taken to curb e-cigarette use among teens, especially after the devices made national news in August when people began to die from illnesses related to vaping. In January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill banning the sale of flavored vape products, one of several recommendations made by the state’s task force to study the effects of vaping.
Dr. Brian Jenssen, a primary care pediatrician based at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who also works on research and policy related to tobacco use, said removing the availability of flavored vaping products will help cut down teen use.
Claims that e-cigarettes are a better alternative than smoking are unfounded, he said.
“They claim that the aerosol is harmless. That’s not true; it’s got known heavy metals, known carcinogens that can harm health,” Jenssen said.
Helping treat teens in the office is difficult because many do not want to disclose their e-cigarette use to adults like their pediatrician, so public health messaging will be key to changing habits, he said.
On a Tuesday night in Mays Landing, a group of teens from area high schools, including Gowda, gathered to talk about their experiences related to tobacco use among their peers and share ideas on prevention. The students are part of the county’s Stand Up and Rebel club, which partakes in the statewide Incorruptible US anti-vaping campaign launched last year by the Department of Health.
Gowda said many of her peers vape and vape in school and attributed it to a lack of knowledge about the dangers.
She said a classmate of hers uses the vape pen in class when the teacher turns around. Others retreat to bathrooms to get their fix.
All of the students agreed more education and stricter regulations would help. They also suggested more supports for quitting and peer-to-peer programming.
Carlo Favretto, regional youth director at Atlantic Prevention Resources, who leads the monthly meeting with the teens, said the youth coalition promotes education over punishment when it comes to vaping in schools. He said they introduced ASPIRE by MD Anderson Cancer Center, a free, online smoking prevention program that is now used in Galloway Township Middle School, Mainland, Absegami and Buena.
For Favretto, one of the more alarming issues with the rise in e-cigarette use among teens is the tactics used to market the products. He said it is history repeating itself.
“This is big tobacco all over again,” Favretto said, comparing an advertisement for Virginia Slims to JUUL. “They’ve just got a new face. They’re advertising the same way they did back in the day.”