What can smell like cotton candy perfume and look like a USB stick?
An e-cigarette. The increasingly popular electronic nicotine delivery device often looks and smells nothing like its cigarette predecessor. And smoking e-cigarettes, also called vaping, is increasingly common among youth around the nation and in Teton County.
“We do know it’s a pretty huge trend,” said Vitaliy Kroychik, a tobacco prevention specialist at the Wyoming Department of Health. “If we were seeing these numbers with tobacco that would be like setting us back 50 years.”
When asked, 27 percent of Teton County 12th-graders — the highest percentage in the state — said they’ve used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. That compares with only 15 percent of Wyoming 12th-graders.
In their lifetime 44 percent of Teton County 12th-graders have used e-cigarettes, compared with 34 percent of Wyoming 12th-graders.
Those numbers come from the 2016 Wyoming Prevention Needs Assessment. There’s some variation from other data from a 2015 Prevention Needs Assessment, which shows that 49.4 percent of high school students statewide have tried electronic vapor products and 29.6 percent are current users.
E-cigarettes are battery powered devices that heat a liquid, known as juice, to create an aerosol to be inhaled. The aerosol usually contains varying amounts of nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals.
Health professionals warn that many teenagers are under the impression vaping isn’t bad for them.
“I hear kids often say how cool it is,” said Trudy Funk, the executive director of addiction treatment center Curran-Seeley. “Teens feel like it can’t hurt you and that it isn’t as bad as cigarettes. But there are still health hazards, and the fact that nicotine is in it means that it is still an addictive product.”
That flies in the face of teenagers’ perception of traditional cigarettes, Kroychik said.
“Kids these days don’t view tobacco positively and they don’t view vaping as being a tobacco product,” he said. “So that’s where the disconnect is.”
Marketing plays a big role and has far-reaching consequences. On average you’re three times as likely to start smoking cigarettes if you vape.
“I think people rush to find the next big thing, the latest and the greatest, just because it’s new,” Kroychik said, cautioning against the misconception of reduced harm. “But until we actually know for sure we shouldn’t be so accepting of it.”
E-cigarettes and other vaping products are sold anywhere that traditional tobacco products can be found, like gas stations, and are relatively cheap. If kids aren’t 18 years old it’s fairly easy for them to order products online or have an older friend buy things for them.
“The fact that we have kids as young as 14 with these devices tells me that it’s very easy to acquire,” Funk said.
The brand Juul is a favorite, she noted.
Schools are taking action
E-cigarettes are also growing in popularity on college campuses, where most students are over 18 and tobacco products are legal. Mike Samp, chief of police at the University of Wyoming, said the school has made changes in its smoking policies to include electronic cigarettes.
“We certainly saw a spike when that technology became available,” he said.
Local secondary school administrators say they are tackling the issue.
“These are things that students have access to, both through our community and online, and we’ve seen them showing up at school,” said Dan Abraham, Jackson Hole High School assistant principal. “So we’re jumping on addressing it and informing parents and kids about what they’re doing.”
Principal Scott Crisp said that with increased awareness comes the perception of increased prevalence.
“We’re going to see things in our school that happen in society, just like society sees things that happen in schools,” he said. “I think it’s really important to understand that these things just flow together and we’re just reacting to what’s going on in a bigger picture right now.”
Crisp said there isn’t a certain kind of student who vapes.
“It’s all economic classes, it’s all races,” he said. “There’s no “that type” of student. The profile of the student is very much varied.”
Jackson Hole High School resource officer Andrew Roundy said he hasn’t caught any students vaping at school but often finds the vaporizers, cartridges and batteries in backpacks or in cars. Although he tests most of what he finds for THC and expects to find it at some point, nothing’s come back positive yet.
“Usually once a week, some kid is getting in trouble one way or another,” he said.
Roundy said cracking down on vaping products could be a full-time job — he recently found $350 worth of vaping paraphernalia in one student’s car — but he also has other priorities.
“On a scale of severity of crimes, minor in possession of tobacco is almost at the bottom,” Roundy said. “Besides the health aspect, them running a stop sign is of more concern to me. But we still enforce it.”
Teton County School District No. 1 schools are drug, alcohol and tobacco free. That means that even if students are 18 and could vape and possess paraphernalia on the weekends legally, they can’t on school property. On the first offense students usually are suspended. On the second strike law enforcement is notified and a minor in possession citation is issued, costing $50 for the first offense, $250 for the second and $750 for the third.
Students must then appear in court to pay the fine. It doesn’t follow them on their record. Warning suspensions without a citation are becoming more rare as the school pays more attention to vaping, Roundy said.
Principal Matt Hoelscher said that there hasn’t been any vaping at Jackson Hole Middle School but that he knows sometimes students vape as they’re walking to or from school.
“We’re not catching kids smoking in the bathroom,” he said. “We have noticed some usage, but it’s minimal. We don’t want to concern people.”
Rebellion is alluring
It can be difficult for teachers and staff to identify the devices, since they often look like pieces of technology. Summit High School Principal Beth Auge said that’s the hardest part.
“The allure of it, for teenagers, is that open rebellion right in the face of authority,” Funk said.
The tobacco prevention landscape is changing and professionals are doing their best to keep up. Without data showing health effects after five, 10 and 15 years of vaping, it’s tricky.
“At this point we’re not just trying to get people to quit or trying to keep kids from trying tobacco,” Kroychik said. “We’re also focusing on something completely different that we don’t have the data for. It’s getting problematic.”
Funk said the trend “spreading like wildfire” caught her off guard, too.
“This really kind of came out of left field,” she said.
The Wyoming Department of Health is looking to increase awareness with a campaign targeting teens.
“The youth of today are not like the youth of yesterday,” Kroychik said. “They are so driven through social media. That’s where the eyeballs are, and that’s where they interact. If we were to put anything out on TV or on the radio, we would not be reaching that population.”
Kroychik said the campaign would use teen voices to speak to their peers.
“We want to educate, but ultimately we want to leave the decision in their hands,” he said. “Kids are very sensitive to being told what to do. If we tell them, ‘Don’t do X, Y and Z’ the first thing they’re going to do is do X, Y and Z.”