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Health crisis or hype? Youth vaping concerns schools, prompts lawsuits

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SMITHFIELD — A Johnston County respiratory therapist and educators have expressed concern about e-cigarettes’ health risks, while a local vape shop owner says he’s used the tobacco alternatives for years with no ill effects.

Vaping’s dangers have dominated news reports for weeks. The first North Carolina death related to vaping happened in Greensboro on Sept. 25..

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked vaping to 13 deaths and more than 800 illnesses in the United States. In most of those cases, patients said they used vapor cartridges containing THC, the chemical compound that gives marijuana its “high.” The e-cigarette industry says those products likely contain dangerous additives or adulterants, since marijuana itself has no known lethal dose.

State Attorney General Josh Stein has sued Juul Labs and other e-cigarette makers in recent months, alleging they illegally market their products to youths.

MEDICAL PERSPECTIVE

Johnston Health respiratory therapist Wendy Banks and a co-worker went to an electronic cigarette and vaping conference in May at the Medical Mall across from Johnston Health Smithfield.

“The main misconception is vaping is better because it’s water vapor,” said Banks. “ Vaping is a chemical aerosol. In this aerosol, it has flavored pods,. In these pods are multiple things with a high concentration of nicotine. When one vapes that pod, they’re actually getting a concentration of nicotine that’s the equivalent of an entire pack of cigarettes.”

Banks said vaping is more addictive than smoking because of the higher level of nicotine in each pod.

Juul is the largest manufacturer of electronic cigarettes and accessories. Banks said the Juul device provides a faster nicotine high because of its patented technology and said nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine.

“These companies are marketing these Juul e-cigs and vaping tools for people ranging in age from middle school to the mid-20s,” said Banks. “That’ s one of the reasons the attorney general is suing the e-cig industry because of their false advertising.”

Juul CEO Kevin Burns stepped down Sept. 25 following backlash against the e-cigarette company’s marketing practices and a wave of illnesses and deaths linked to vaping in recent weeks.

“One of the deceptions is that vaping’s called nicotine replacement therapy,” said Banks. “There are carcinogenic agents in them the companies don’t want you to know, they contain a long list of chemicals.”

Banks said vaping is a gateway to smoking, especially when there are middle school students experimenting with it.

“Vapers who have participated in medical research say it’s just a phase, they’re not hooked, they do it because they enjoy it and can quit anytime,” Banks said. “In one study, in five years, 95% of those who participated are still vaping.”

Banks and her co-workers at Johnston Health treat patients who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

“We’ll ask them, ‘Do you smoke?,’ and they’ll tell us they’ve quit smoking and are vaping now because it’s less damaging,” said Banks. “People are convinced cutting down on cigarettes and vaping is a safer alternative.”

Banks said the hospital is finding people who vape getting lung damage earlier and faster than those who smoke.

“We’re seeing 20-year-olds that are showing lungs of someone 50-60 years old,” said Banks. “My role as a professional is to inform them and talk about vaping and its effects and the misconceptions.”

With electronic cigarettes, Banks said the butane burns hotter than a traditional cigarette to deliver nicotine in a concentrated liquid form. With an aerosol, the nicotine goes down deeper because it’s heavier.

“My patients are in their 20s, some behavioral health patients here are 13-14 years old,” said Banks. “We read these kids aren’t even supposed to get them until they’re 18. So, how are they getting them at 12-14 years old?”

Banks said when young people see people vaping and the vapor comes off more dense than cigarette smoke, many think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen.

LAW ENFORCEMENT

Smithfield Police Capt. Ryan Sheppard said police have received multiple complaints pertaining to the sale of nicotine products including cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco like chew, dip and snuff and e-cigarettes.

“With the cooperation of the Selma Police Department and N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement, our officers have conducted two separate campaigns pertaining to the sale of nicotine products to underage individuals,” said Sheppard. “During these campaigns, the three respective agencies worked together via a mutual aid agreement where undercover assets were utilized to attempt to purchase tobacco products.”

Sheppard said the last campaign resulted in four criminal charges for the illegal sale of nicotine products. Twenty-one retail locations were found to be in compliance with all state tobacco and nicotine sales laws.

N.C. ALE agents issued warning letters to three Smithfield businesses whose employees sold e-cigarettes or vape liquid minors on May 2. Another Smithfield store received a warning letter in August 2018, according to ALE records provided to the Johnstonian News.

Princeton Police Chief Tyrone Sutton said Princeton hasn’t experienced any documented problems — such as police reports or dispatched calls — due to e-cigarette use.

“There are multiple concerns countrywide on the deadly effects it may have on users,” said Sutton. “There is no comprehensive statewide regulation of e-cigarettes and other vapor products in North Carolina, but recent legislation has tackled three issues related to these products: sales to minors under the age of 18, taxation of the products and use of the products in correctional facilities.”

Sutton said it’s imperative to institute some type of regulation.

“E-cigarettes are considered tobacco products because most of them contain nicotine, which comes from tobacco,” said Sutton. “Besides nicotine, e-cigarettes can contain harmful and potentially harmful ingredients, including ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs.”

SCHOOL SYSTEM

The Johnstonian News reached out to area middle school and high school principals. Some noted that vaping is a trend among youths and teenagers and others referred questions to Delores Gill, spokeswoman for Johnston County Public Schools.

“This is an emerging issue. We recognize that the training we provided in the spring is the start to truly understanding what is happening with e-cigarettes,” said Gill. “I cannot speak on individual schools and do not have access to that information. I can say it is important to us and we wanted our principals to receive this training to take back to their schools. “

Gill said JCPS policy addresses how to deal with e-cigarettes and vape pens found at school.

“As you know, some of the devices are hard to detect,” she said. “It is an important issue and one in which we will continue to educate ourselves on, and then utilize the policy to address when seen.”

Princeton Middle/High School Principal Jarvis Ellis said young people are aware of vaping whether or not they try it themselves.

“It really has become the next generation’s cigarette and it appears that the long-term effects are unknown but dangerous,” said Jarvis. “It has not helped that the fruity flavors have been marketed to kids and then you have the illegal substances slipping into the vapes, which is in no way regulated.

“It is a real problem. We all must continue to educate our young people on the risks of putting any substance in their body and the potential negative effects it can have for them now and later in life.”

Jarvis said things were different when he was a student.

“When I was in school, if someone lit a cigarette in the bathroom, everyone on the hall knew someone was smoking,” said Ellis. “The vapes can have no smell and the vapor can be easily hidden so use during the school day has become much easier and more difficult to stop.”

The Johnston County Public Schools Code of Student Conduct prohibits tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

“All employees, students, visitors and other persons performing services or activities on behalf of the school district are prohibited from using any tobacco products including electronic cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products at any time in any school building, in any school facility, on school campuses and in or on any other school property owned and operated by the school board,” the policy states.“In addition, persons attending a school-sponsored event at a location not specified in subsection 1 above are prohibited from using tobacco products.”

The policy also states “School personnel are required to adhere to and enforce this policy and other policies, rules or regulations addressing the use of tobacco products.”

When teachers or administrators find e-cigarettes and vaping accessories, the items are confiscated. Students receive one day of out-of-school suspension on the first offense, three days for a second offense, five days for a third offense and a 10-day suspension for the fourth and subsequent offenses.

The American Heart Association has produced a website called “The Vape Talk” that provides resources for parents who need to have a conversation with their children about vaping. Visit www.lung.org/stop-smoking/vape-talk/.

A SMOKING ALTERNATIVE?

Ali Ahamaed, manager of 95 Tobacco & Vapor in Smithfield, said no one under 18 is allowed in his business and that he cards young people all the time.

Ahamaed said negative news coverage has affected his business. He has managed the store for five years.

“It is big business,” said Ahamaed. “We have some many varieties, we’re growing fast.”

When this reporter entered the store, a middle-aged couple was at the counter trying to decide which flavor brand and vaping tool they were going to purchase. They spent $70.

Ahamaed said he believes the negative publicity is being generated by the tobacco industry to hurt the e-cigarette trade.

“We believe that it doesn’t harm people,” said Ahamaed. “I’ve been vaping five years and it hasn’t hurt me.”

The manager of Cloud 9 Vapor Lounge in Smithfield, after calling the store’s owner, declined an interview request.

While nicotine’s health risks are known — according to the National Institutes of Health, it increases pulse and blood pressure, causes cancer and harms the heart, lung, kidneys and male and female reproductive systems — some doctors say vaping can be a form of harm reduction for longtime smokers.

Not using nicotine is best, the Royal College of Physicians in Great Britain says, but vaping is less dangerous than smoking cigarettes.

Doctors and public health officials in the U.S. are warier of e-cigarettes than their colleagues overseas, the Associated Press noted in a Saturday story. As study continues, recommendations may differ for heavy smokers who could see some potential benefit from the products and nonsmokers for whom vaping only carries risks.

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