Presentation set to bring stark reality to vaping issue

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

To some, vapes, e-cigarettes and Juul devices may have once seemed like a harmless alternative to smoking cigarettes, but recent data has painted a different picture of a new habit that is quickly becoming a national epidemic.

Consider a Juul device. It looks like a computer flash drive, is easily concealed in the palm of the hand and is nearly odorless. But inside that small device is a dangerous reality.

“We talk about Juul a lot,” said CATCH Global Foundation Program Coordinator Patricia Stepaniuk. “Juul is a pod-based system so that means is you have a pre-filled pod that you put in the device, use it, then throw it away and start again. In one of those pods is the same amount of nicotine as one to two packs of cigarettes. I’ve heard of students using a pod a day or a pod every other day.”

Liberty Hill ISD has teamed up with the non-profit CATCH My Breath program, intended to make parents and communities aware of the dangers and risks of vape devices.

The program will be presented in the High School Performing Arts Center Oct. 9 beginning at 6:30 p.m. and Superintendent Steve Snell is encouraging parents to fill the PAC to help the community address this issue together.

Stepaniuk’s message is simple.

“What I like to leave them with is we’re part of a community. Everyone around you is on the same team right now and that’s for the health and safety of our children,” she said. “We need to band together and understand the gravity of the situation, understand what’s going on and try to get ahead of it.”

So far, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has connected 15 deaths nationwide, and more than 800 illnesses to vape products.

Scientists and doctors still don’t know the specific chemicals causing the lung injuries, but vaping is a common thread.

“We in the scientific community, to be truthful, are waiting to see what the long-term effects are,” Stepaniuk said. “We’ve seen stories about upper respiratory illness, potential seizures associated with e-cigarette use and unfortunately the deaths that are being tied to vaping.”

The effects vaping is having today were predicted more than five years ago.

“We really saw a stark increase in youth vaping use between 2011 and 2015,” Stepaniuk said. “There was a 900 percent spike in youth use in that four or five year span. That’s when our program creator Dr. Steve Kelder saw that data and absolutely called it in 2015 and said that’s going to be the next epidemic and we have to do something to hopefully mitigate or stop that and that’s how CATCH My Breath got started.”

Since then, more and more signs have pointed to health problems and questions.

“It has been the last two to three years we started seeing inklings of things,” Stepaniuk said. “Like you’ve seen in the news that there are upper respiratory illnesses related to vaping, there have been again, unfortunately, deaths that have been correlated with vaping and we’ve seen seizures correlated with vaping as well.”

While lung damage may be at the center of the issue, there are other potential health problems with use.

“We’ve talked to specialists at research institutions and other national networks and what we’ve predicted is definitely upper respiratory damage, but another thing we’re looking at is long-term liver damage because your liver is your filter,” Stepaniuk said. “You’re putting all of this stuff into your body and it has to get filtered out somehow so that’s falling on those organs. We’re still waiting in some regards to see what other long-term effects are out there, but we’re kind of hoping we can get ahead of it as much as possible.”

Vape products were billed early on as an alternative to smoking cigarettes and as a method of giving up smoking, but the focus no longer appears to be giving up vaping as well.

“It’s still smoking with these devices,” Stepaniuk said. “They came to the United States around 2007 and yes, were they announced as an alternative to smoking? Absolutely. People saw these as cessation devices, but the caveat there is none of these products have gone through FDA testing to be marketed as a cessation device and there are companies out there as a cessation device. Juul slogan is ‘the smoking alternative’ so to the layperson you absolutely think it will help you quit. But what they don’t tell you is sure, you might stop smoking cigarettes, but you will be smoking their product a lot more than you were ever smoking traditional cigarettes.”

Misconceptions about vape products early on led to a rapid increase in popularity as well as they seemed much safer.

“We saw the increase because of a lot of misconceptions around e-cigarettes,” Stepaniuk said. “There are a lot of both youth and adults that believe that it is just water vapor and flavoring in these products, that there wasn’t nicotine associated with it or if there was it was meant to help people quit smoking, never understanding there are other chemicals in it.”

The marketing of vape products in recent years has paralleled how cigarettes were once pitched, said Stepaniuk, showing an eerie connection to how they are targeted.

“If you go and look at any (vape product) here when they first hit the market here in 2014, 2015 or 2016, all of their advertising was directed at the under 30 and under 25 population,” she said. “You look at their ads and you see glamorous people, influencers using these products, talking about vaping anywhere anytime, there’s no need to feel tied down, they make your life better, you look good doing it and young people caught on to that and said ‘Oh, if they’re doing it, it must be okay’.

“You can take ads from Marlboro or Virginia Slims or whoever else and put them side by side with these early ads from e-cigarette companies and the same ads are being used,” Stepaniuk said. “Again, young, glamorous, beautiful people are using their products.”

The most critical concern is that vape devices are much easier to use than cigarettes, and can be much more addictive.

“If you have ever been a smoker or ever known smokers in your life they will likely tell you that the first few drags when they started were terrible, but it’s not the same with an e-cigarette,” Stepaniuk said. “People say they’re really smooth, it doesn’t burn your lungs and it is really easy to take the first hit and keep going.”

All of these factors led to a 78 percent increase in use among high schoolers from 2017 to 2018, and a sizable increase even among middle school students. It is estimated that 21 percent of high school and 5 percent of middle school students use vape products.

As with many things, peer pressure can play a big role in students vaping and becoming addicted.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in youth use across the board,” Stepaniuk said. “It again comes from the misconceptions about it and the few times I have been a part of being able to talk to students they say it truly is a peer pressure situation. Unfortunately for students there are a lot of them who try to stand tall, but I think for a lot of them that are surrounded by it, it is easy to succumb to that peer pressure.”

Stepaniuk said there is no e-cigarette specific cessation program for adults or children and it is much more difficult to get them help once they are addicted.

“With traditional nicotine use in connection with cigarettes it can take anywhere from six to 14 quit attempts to actually quit,” she said. “With e-cigarettes, we’re predicting the same if not more quit attempts, and for young people they are much more easily primed for addiction so that adds another layer to the problem.”

In the case of vaping, there is no easy solution, but Stepaniuk said the focus should always be on prevention.

“I wish there was a one-size fits all, one shot solution for everyone, but it’s going to have to be a team effort,” she said. “It has to be a team effort from the prevention side.”

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