Teen vaping trend comes to BKW

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Vape pods and other devices were on display in the Berne-Knox-Westerlo auditorium as part of a presentation by the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. Many of the devices pictured were confiscated from BKW students, according to the Sergeant Tracy Mance.

BERNE — Tobacco cigarettes have fallen out of favor with young people, while e-cigarettes and vaping have become popular, according to Albany County Sheriff’s Sergeant Tracy Mance.

Several dozen people listened to her presentation at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo auditorium on Jan. 31.  She focused on e-cigarettes as well as marijuana, a topic that has become more complicated as it is legalized in neighboring states and is may soon be legalized in New York.

Electronic cigarettes and vaporizers, referred to often as e-cigs and vape pens, are devices that heat a liquid to create a vapor that is then inhaled. The liquid can contain varying levels of nicotine like a traditional cigarette, but the device can also be used for either recreational or medical marijuana.

Dr. Mark Pitterson, BKW’s secondary-school principal, said at the beginning of the event that he himself had not known what vaping was until devices started to be confiscated at school, and that some parents were also unaware. The presentation was meant to inform parents, students, and educators.

Pitterson told The Enterprise that this year he and other staff started to find vape pens in the secondary school, which serves students in sixth through 12th grades. Some staff members, he said, were at first unable to distinguish the vape pens from flash drives, which are used to store computer data.

Some vape pens, like flash drives, are charged in USB ports. (USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, an industry standard for short-distance digital data communications.)

In the last few months, more than a dozen vape pens were confiscated, with most containing nicotine.

“We’ve confiscated too many,” Pitterson said. He added that the effects of vaping made even a few found too many. The secondary school has 371 students.

In Albany County, the minimum age to purchase electronic cigarettes and tobacco products is 21. Pitterson said that he suspects students are obtaining electronic cigarettes in one of two ways.

One is to have 18-year-old students go to neighboring counties like Schoharie where the minimum age to buy electronic cigarettes is 18. The other is to buy the e-cigs online, possibly using a gift card to make the purchase.

In 2014, a study at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill had 11 teenagers aged 14 to 17 attempt to buy electronic cigarettes online from 98 different vendors, with 75 purchases successfully made; only five purchase attempts were rejected due to age verification, and another 18 failed due to unrelated reasons.

A quick search on Instagram shows about 25.1 million posts tagged with the word “vape” and 4.2 million posts tagged with “vapetricks”; only 2.3 million posts were tagged with the word “cigarette,” with one top post a video of a smoker’s friend extinguishing his cigarettes with a water gun to encourage him to quit.

A December 2018 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse through the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that what is happening at BKW is typical of a nationwide trend: In a survey of eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students across the country, vaping has increased dramatically, while tobacco use is at an all-time low.

According to the study, 37.3 percent of high school seniors reported “any vaping” in the past year, compared to 27.8 percent in 2017; high school seniors’ reported use of vaping nicotine specifically in the last month nearly doubled from 11 percent in 2017 to 20.9 percent in 2018. The study found that only 3.6 percent of high school seniors smoked tobacco daily in 2018, compared to 22.4 percent 20 years ago.

Mance said that cigarettes still carry a stigma with young people as harmful to their health, while vaping and electronic cigarettes are perceived as less harmful. The devices can also be used with different flavors that make it more appealing. Vaping also can give off enough smoke to do “tricks” like smoke rings.

“It’s a whole culture,” said Albany County Sheriff’s Deputy Nathaniel Bray, BKW’s school resource officer.

Pitterson noted that some students who have had their vape pens confiscated have said that there is no nicotine present, only flavoring, but he doubts that this is true.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse study states that more than a quarter of 12th-graders surveyed said that they vaped “just flavoring” in 2018, but says it is unclear if the students actually knew what they were using, as, according to the study, more popular devices do not have nicotine-free options, and some labeling was found to be inaccurate.

More than one in 10 eighth-graders said they vaped nicotine this past year, according to the NIDA report. Marijuana vaping also increased with 13.1 percent of high school seniors reporting using it in the past year, up from 9.5 percent in 2017.

Prescription drug use also dropped among seniors from 4.2 percent in 2017 to 3.4 percent in 2018; only 0.4 percent of seniors reported using heroin in 2018. Other illicit drug use, including cocaine, synthetic cannabinoids, and MDMA, remained close to historic lows.

Being drunk and binge drinking had also decreased significantly in 2018; according to the study, the lowest rates since the survey started in 1975 were reported; 13.8 percent of seniors reported binge drinking in 2018, down from 16.6 percent in 2017 and 31.5 percent when it peaked in 1998.

Marijuana use remained steady, with 35.9 percent of 12th-graders and 27.5 of 10th-graders reporting using it in 2018.

Electronic cigarettes were originally marketed to tobacco users trying to quit smoking. A recently published study following 886 smokers in Britain found that e-cigarettes were twice as effective as nicotine patches or gum to quit smoking.

But what the Food and Drug Administration describes as marketing to children has led to the federal agency to crack down on vape pens and electronic cigarettes. Last September, the agency issued over 1,300 warning letters and fines to stores that illegally sold e-cigarette products to minors; and in November the FDA proposed a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in stores that are not age-restricted as well as proposing new age-verification standards for online purchases.

The American Lung Association, however, recently gave the FDA an “F” grade in part for failing to eliminate flavored tobacco products from the market and for failing to raise the minimum purchasing age to 21.

Mance and guest speaker Jesse Loucks, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, both said that prevention often starts with speaking to someone. Mance encouraged parents to talk with their children — not just about drugs, but also about how they’re feeling in general.

“We need to talk — we as a community,” she said.

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