SILVER SPRING—In response to an increase in underage use of vaping paraphernalia, Montgomery County officials have created a work group to reduce the rise.
According to the Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Association (CASAA), vaping has been around since before the 1960s but didn’t really take off until the early 2000s, when the first commercially successful electronic cigarette was created in China.
A vape or vaporizer device heats up liquid without reaching combustion which releases a cloud of steam as opposed to one of smoke, according to Medical News Today. Vapes work with a variety of substances like tobacco, nicotine or oils. They can also be used to smoke marijuana or cannabinoids.
Vaping devices like Juul were designed to provide an alternative to traditional cigarettes. In recent years, the popular vape brand has come out with liquids that produce sweet tasting vapor often in flavors that are attractive to young users like cotton candy or fruit flavors. Juul vapes are popular by name but there are other common brands like Smok Nord and Kwit Stick also available on the market today.
Although vaping is usually less fragrant than traditional cigarettes, Montgomery County updated their smoking laws in 2015 to prohibit it in most public areas.
Traditional cigarettes are slightly different than vape devices, according to Dr. Travis Gayles, who works as a county health officer.
“What is different between the two are the levels of pure nicotine,” Gayles said. “Juuls and vapes have much higher levels of pure nicotine than traditional cigarettes. Studies have shown that vaping devices can have comparable levels of nicotine to 1-3 packs of cigarettes in one cartridge.”
He explained that for some chronic smokers, vaping has provided an opportunity to wean a person’s nicotine use, but research is still needed to confirm that vaping is a viable alternative to traditional cigarettes.
Sweet vapor flavors and the lack of lingering smoke are both attractive factors for younger users.
Jeff Fritz started using a Juul when he was 21.
“The vape that I use to smoke just tasted good, but it didn’t give me that same cigarette satisfaction,” he said. “I wanted to try it because I wanted to quit smoking cigarettes. It hits like a cigarette; it gives me a calm feeling when I’m stressed.”
Officials noted how marketing efforts by vape companies could be appealing to young users. A survey conducted by the Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in fall of 2018 found an incredible uptick in vape use among middle and high schoolers.
“The data from this nationally representative survey shows astonishing increases in kids’ use of e-cigarettes, reversing years of favorable trends in our nation’s fight to prevent youth addiction to tobacco products,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.
He explained that between 2017 and 2018, there was a drastic increase in vape use in middle and high school age students. Nearly 3.6 million students were reportedly using e-cigarettes, which is an increase of 1.5 million more students than the previous year.
The survey also found that two-thirds of underage users are using flavored kinds of vapes.
“The bottom line is this: I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes,” Gottlieb said. “We won’t let this pool of kids, pool of future potential smokers, of future disease and death, to continue to build.”
In response to the survey the FDA partnered with the Federal Trade Commission to push back against manufacturers who produce products with elements that are appealing to young people, like kid-appealing imagery that mimics juice boxes or lollipops.
States like California have made moves recently to create legislation like the SB38 Flavored Tobacco Products bill that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products.
The bill would ban a tobacco retailer from selling, offering for sale or possessing with intent to sell flavored tobacco products.
Bills like this one tend to receive pushback from vaping advocates and companies that currently sell the potentially banned vape liquids like Black Note Tobacco which is a manufacturer of vape liquids based in California.
“Because there are no exemptions for adult-only locations, this legislation, SB 38 in particular, has the potential to kill vape stores all across the state, and may encourage other states to take similar action,” wrote Black Note Tobacco on their blog. “If you look at the actual data on youth vaping, the picture doesn’t seem as concerning as politicians and pressure groups imply.”
Dr. Gayles explained that nicotine affects young users differently than older users and vapes present a unique set of problems.
“Younger users are more sensitive because the body is more sensitive to nicotine,” he said. “The adolescent brain is still developing, and early exposure to nicotine during these years can cause damage to the prefrontal cortex. That’s a part of the brain that is integral to executive, cognitive and emotional functioning.”
Gayles also explained that teens can experience more severe withdrawals and that people who start using nicotine early are predisposed to trying other substances that may be harmful. Another concern he highlighted was that any liquid could be laced with other substances like opioids, which can cause a more significant and acute reaction.
According to a press release from Montgomery County government, there have been several instances of students losing consciousness after using unknown substances in vaping devices since October 2018.
“In March, three MCPS students were taken by ambulance to an emergency room after ingesting cannabinoids through a vaping device,” they wrote.
The members of the work group, put together by the county, include the Office of the County Executive, Montgomery County Public Schools, the Department of Liquor Control and Montgomery County Police, among others. They report discussing tactics like enhancing surveillance and penalizing for underage distribution.
“It is important to raise awareness in the community about this emerging issue so that we aren’t caught flat footed and can prevent a catastrophic event from happening like a student dying from exposure,” Gayles said. “The issue highlights the need for a comprehensive strategy that integrates law enforcement strategies, publicity, potential legislation and education and outreach for individuals to make better choices.”