Bathrooms. Locker rooms. Cars. Check any of these places on a typical school day, and you’re likely to find students taking part in the latest teen trend: vaping.
“It’s pretty common around my crowd,” says one Charlottesville High School senior, who estimates about 25 percent of his classmates vape. “Kids will duck out of class every once in a while [to go vape.]”
Teen vaping, declared an “epidemic” by the U.S. surgeon general last December, has been a growing source of concern for parents and public health officials for a couple years, leading Virginia to join several other states and more than 400 municipalities in raising the age to buy tobacco and vape products to 21. A mysterious new vaping-related illness has only increased the alarm. But has the new law had any effect?
At St. Anne’s-Belfield, the law has made it “a little more difficult” for students to vape, says one senior. “But it’s not like students are going to stop or have stopped because of that.”
“Everyone knows who the people are that you get all the vaping supplies from, who’s going to buy [them],” he says. “It’s just generally kind of accepted.”
Since the law went into effect in July, students have used fake IDs and their “connections with retail locations” to purchase vaping products, says the CHS senior.
According to a 2018 Monitoring the Future survey, more than 37 percent of high school seniors, 33 percent of sophomores, and 18 percent of eighth graders reported vaping within the past year—a dramatic increase from 2017. Experts say many teens vape because they’re not aware of its dangers.
Sally Goodquist, Virginia Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Coordinator for the Northwest Region, finds that many teens believe e-cigarettes just contain water vapor.
“Young people are only educated on cigarettes,” says Goodquist. “They see vaping … as a safe alternative to smoking.”
Even after learning about the dangers of nicotine, some St. Anne’s students simply switched over to using vapes containing THC, a chemical commonly found in marijuana, believing that it was healthier than nicotine, says the St. Anne’s senior.
And at CHS, says the senior at the school, most students think there is little chance vaping will harm them.
Virginia’s new law “typically carries a punishment by a civil penalty or fine,” for those who are caught vaping under age, according to a statement from the Charlottesville Police Department. But it hasn’t led to more teen vapers being charged.
“We have not requested enhanced enforcement, and I’m not aware that we have seen any increase in the number of charges [since July],” says Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania.
But the recent outbreak of vaping-related illness—and a ban on flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine pods that’s been proposed in response—could be a bigger deterrent for teens.
Since August 24, 535 cases of vaping-related lung illness have been identified across the country, and seven people have died.
In the Virginia Department of Health’s northwest region, which encompasses Charlottesville, there have been three confirmed cases and one probable case.
Many have blamed “kid-friendly” flavors of nicotine products for the growth of teen vaping, and in response to the latest health scare, the Trump administration announced September 11 that it would ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine pods, excluding tobacco flavors.
“Nobody wants to use a tobacco Juul. Getting rid of those [flavors] will take away the appeal because now it’s just as gross as smoking a cigarette,” says the senior at St. Anne’s, who stopped vaping after he learned about the vaping-related illness.
It is also possible the ban could backfire.
“People don’t really care what [the vape] tastes like,” says the senior at CHS.
If there is a ban on most flavors, some teens may turn to the online black market, use tobacco-flavored vapes, or even switch to smoking regular cigarettes.
“I know people that have already switched to [cigarettes] because of the stories about vaping,” added the CHS senior.
It’s unclear when—or if—a nationwide ban on flavored e-cigarettes will be enforced. For now, the CDC has advised people to avoid using e-cigarettes and never buy them on the street. It has also warned against modifying e-cigarettes or adding any substances to them that aren’t intended by the manufacturer.