Unicorn Puke. Space Rockz. Kaptain Peanut Butter Crunch.
While they sound like names for candy and snacks, these flavors of nicotine liquid cartridges are what smoking prevention advocates say draw teens into using electronic cigarettes and vaping.
“I think they (other teens) think it’s completely safe,” said Lynn Daneguy, 15, of Egg Harbor Township. “The packaging looks pretty and cool, and they smell good, too, but they barely mention all the chemicals in there.”
Traditional tobacco smoking rates among adults and teens are at historical lows, but federal data show e-cigarettes remained the most used tobacco product among middle and high school student smokers in 2016.
Daneguy and other South Jersey teens are working together in a statewide campaign to appeal to their peers about the dangers of using e-cigarettes and the unknown long-term effects of inhaling the flavored liquids and oils.
Atlantic County Stand Up and Rebel, a youth community prevention group, was one of three teen pilot groups selected by the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative to receive mini grants to create education projects and activities for the cooperative’s “Don’t Get Vaped In” campaign.
Merle Weitz, director of public health programs at the cooperative, said the organization has been involved in tobacco prevention for years, especially among mothers, and they focused more efforts on youth when they noticed an increase in e-cigarette use among high school students.
Other participating teen groups were from Bordentown Regional High School in Burlington County and Woodstown High School in Salem County.
“They’re told that e-cigarettes are vapor, which they think is cool and easy to hide,” Weitz said. “Research now tells us those kids are more likely to ultimately use cigarettes, because e-cigs still have nicotine, which is addictive. Then you have a new generation of smokers.”
About 20 percent of New Jersey high school students said they had tried an e-cigarette and more than 9 percent said they had used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, according to the state’s 2016 Youth Tobacco Survey.
Under the direction of Kim Burns, southern region coordinator for the Tobacco Free for a Healthy New Jersey, Daneguy and Egg Harbor Township High School sophomores Pheona Lam and Jasia Abbas, both 15, created their own education program to talk to their peers about the dangers of vaping.
“It’s not uncommon in our age group to see it in our surroundings,” Abbas said.
Their presentation has been given to high school classes and community organizations, as well as shared with other student groups in South Jersey interested in adopting the project.
They included information on how easy it is to hide the use of vaping with devices like Juul vaporizers, which are small and look like computer USBs, and the dozens of chemicals — including formaldehyde, a human carcinogen — that are in e-cigarette liquid cartridges and Juul pods.
“They think it’s cool, because they’ll post it on social media,” Lam said. “People might look at e-cigarettes as a solution for (traditional) smoking because they think it doesn’t do as much harm, but it does.”
E-cigarettes are not as harmful as smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes. In fact, some experts recommend that smokers who want to quit tobacco move on to e-cigarettes in an effort to eventually wean themselves entirely off tobacco and nicotine products.
But Cristine Delnevo and Olivia Wackowski, of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey’s Center for Tobacco Studies, said even though e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, the nicotine in them can be very addictive and harm the development of an adolescent brain.
New Jersey became the third state in November to put into effect a law that increased the tobacco purchase age to 21. Experts predict access to tobacco and nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, for underage users will be even more restricted.
Burns, who has worked on tobacco prevention for about 20 years, said she thought the popularity of e-cigarettes would be temporary after they hit U.S. markets more than 10 years ago, but marketing toward younger users has kept the trend going.
“It’s really cool to see how much more they know about vaping when we give the class the post-test and see that they know more answers than they did at the beginning,” Daneguy said.