Diana DeGette holds vaping discussion with teens

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette sits with students Trinity Wynn (left) and Cade Hodapp to discuss teen vaping at South High School on Feb. 3.

It did not take long for U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette to hear in her meeting with high school students that the problem of teen vaping is likely worse than reported.

“Nationally, about 28% of high school students are using e-cigarettes or other vaping products,” she said. “That’s one in four students.”

Aden Ray, a tenth grade student at South High School, responded that he believed not all students were being truthful in surveys. “From what I’ve seen in the classroom and out of the classroom, it’s almost like three in five students,” he countered.

On Monday morning, DeGette held a forum at South High School in Denver with six students about teen vaping. The discussion came two days before DeGette will chair a congressional hearing to question the heads of the five e-cigarette companies that control 97% of the vape market: JUUL, NJOY, Fontem, Logic and Reynolds American.

In the $1.4 trillion government funding agreement that Congress passed in December, the minimum age to purchase tobacco rose from 18 to 21. However, all of the students at the discussion raised their hands when asked if they knew people vaping who were under age 21 — and under 18, for that matter.

Cade Hodapp, a student from Englewood High School, said of making purchases on JUUL’s webite, “They don’t really have a carding capability. They just say, ‘put in your birthdate.’” Teenagers, in turn, write a fake birthday.

“They either are sending it to their own house or someone else’s house who’s at least age 21 and have them sign off for it,” said Hodapp. He felt that vaping leads to worse behavior than other forms of teenage vice, like marijuana consumption, citing a friend who has “anger issues” when in nicotine withdrawal.

Currently, users of JUUL’s website must first confirm they are over 21. To purchase items online, they need to create an account in which they enter a phone number, birth date and the last four digits of a Social Security number. In January 2019, JUUL wrote that it employs an “advanced fake I.D. detection algorithm and our human verification experts,” plus checks of phone numbers against public databases to verify the ages of users. The company also asks for an upload of a photo identification.

DeGette said that she would ask the e-cigarette representatives about teenagers’ ease of access to their websites.

She described how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had allowed sales of e-cigarettes and vape products to continue for years while formulating regulations. The Trump Administration promised in September 2019 to “clear the market” of flavored e-cigarettes, but final guidance only prioritized enforcement against most flavored vape cartridges.

“One of the reasons the age was raised to 21 was because what we found was when the age was 18, they’re marketing actually to 14, 15, 16, and 17-year-olds,” she said. “The theory is when the age is 21, not only will it be harder to get because we won’t have high school students able to get it, but the marketing will be different, too."

DeGette, an alumna of South High School, said that the same findings applied to cigarette companies. She added that her mother died of lung cancer at age 54 after being a lifelong smoker.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has reported eight hospitalizations in the state since August 2019 for vaping-related lung illness. Late last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that vitamin E acetate, a chemical additive in vaping products that impairs lung function, was linked to the outbreak of illnesses.

“I think that in some cases, parents, much like the kids, were under a false impression that this was somehow safer than traditional nicotine products,” said Wendy Rubin, the superintendent of Englewood Schools, who joined the discussion. She said that parents initially thought, “I’d rather have them vaping than smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco.”

Jacob Drews, a senior at South High School, disclosed that one of his friends died of lung cancer.

“I think the biggest question that should be asked all of [the industry executives] is the death toll,” he said.

Participants described the extent to which teens would go to sneak hits from vape products: some use “vaping hoodies,” inserting the device into the drawstring opening of a hooded sweatshirt and clandestinely taking puffs. Others go to the bathrooms and cover up the vape smoke with AXE Body Spray.

The administrators in the room nodded their heads.

“On a weekly basis, there’s probably six to 10 referrals that are coming through, as far as students that are caught,” said South High School Principal Bobby Thomas. He continued to say that many vaping devices look like school supplies, and are therefore hard to monitor.

The FDA has thus far focused its enforcement authority on the marketing and sales practices of vaping companies that target minors. The devices come in shapes of USB drives, perfume bottles, and other designs distinct from traditional cigarettes.

In the event that students are caught vaping, South High School’s health professional described the Second Chance program that the school puts students through. It is an online, self-directed course that helps students think about quitting tobacco. Ninth grade student Paulina Perez-Cantarovici echoed the need for alternatives to conventional discipline, like suspensions.

“That’s not necessary,” she said. “I feel like students who have addictions or are going through something, they need support. And they shouldn’t just be suspended for their actions, because you don’t know the full story.”

For tenth grade student Trinity Wynn, the questions of how to regulate vaping and what to do about addiction were secondary to another concern: understanding the reason teens vape.

“What needs to be targeted is the sole problem, which is why they start vaping in the first place,” she said. “Most of the time, it’s either depression or anxiety which is caused by the stress of overall high school. We need to have more people who they can go to and talk to in schools so they don’t go to vaping to get rid of their anxiety.”

Wynn added, “We need to focus on how to make them better before they get worse.”

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