Picture this—your school children being wooed by this cool-looking USB-type device with packaging that’s colorful and attractive and would appeal to anyone, especially young people.

The device has a cartridge that contains a candy-flavored aerosol that has as much nicotine as a full pack of cigarettes, except the children may not know it.

The child is spending a lot of time in the bathroom. You see these strange devices around the house that your child says are batteries for the chargers, and you think you need to be better informed about 21st century technology. Welcome to the world of vaping.

According to Monitoring the Future, an annual survey done for the National Institute of Drug Abuse (part of the National Institutes of Health), 19 percent of 12th graders, 16 percent of 10th graders and 8 percent of 8th graders reported vaping in the last year.

The e-cigarette market grew by 40 percent last year to $1.16 billion and one of the biggest players—Juul Labs—grew their revenues by 700 percent to about $224 million.

E-cigarettes were created to wean smokers from tobacco smoking. They have almost no smell and therefore are very hard to detect. The device itself is tiny, resembles a flash drive and is easy to conceal. School administrators are concerned at the increasing numbers of children riding this trend.

Kids are vaping in school bathrooms or even in class. They tend to take small doses over the course of the day and don’t know how much they have consumed.

Often they are unaware of its ingredients. Reports show that kids are buying e-nicotine products online using their parents’ credit or debit cards or their own gift cards. Children who were initially doing it for fun in social settings are now sneaking off to bathrooms to get their fix, and they are starting to get addicted to nicotine.

Pure nicotine is a deadly poison. One drop of it on the skin can kill an adult. In vaporized form it is hugely addictive. There’s no specific evidence that it helps significantly to wean smokers away from smoking. In fact it can be a gateway for young people to become smokers later on, providing tobacco manufacturers a solution to the shrinking tobacco market.

A recent article in Medpage Today highlighted research that inhaling of strong flavors into the lungs can impair blood vessel function and contribute to heart damage.

Other research from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that consistently inhaling such metals in vaporized form can be highly harmful to the lungs, liver, immune system and the heart and brain.

Tobacco companies are targeting children with their advertising, colorful packaging and fruit flavorings like mango and crème brulee.

Among U.S. middle and high school students, exposure to e-cigarette ads increased from 69 percent to 78 percent over two years from 2014-2016. The ads override negative perceptions of tobacco products among youth and divert attention from health warnings.

Many kids reported not knowing what is inside an e-cigarette and some think it’s just vapor. According to Monitoring the Future, only 16 percent of 12th graders in 2017 thought that regular e-cigarette use posed any risk of harm.

Last July, the FDA gave tobacco companies a 5-year extension on the “deeming rule” that would have required them to prove that their products are a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes.

This April they did issue warning letters to 40 retailers that it said violated the law preventing sales of vaping devices to anyone less than 21 years of age and also demanded Juul Labs turn over company documents about marketing of its products.

What can we parents do? We need a comprehensive strategy that targets this issue at different nodes. The main way to prevent nicotine addiction is to discourage people from using products that contain it.

Since most people who have become addicted began using nicotine-containing products in adolescence or early adulthood, it’s important to use prevention strategies that target that age segment.

As parents, we need to stay informed and be aware. Make sure that you know the signs of vaping and keep an eye on your kids’ activities. Keep communication channels open at all times about stresses they may be facing at school.

It’s often such situations that lead to dependency. Check online gift card purchases and limit access to credit cards that can be used for buying e-cigarettes online and slip by you on innocuously-worded monthly statements.

As school districts and municipalities, we have the responsibility of keeping our residents and students aware of harmful trends and the risks associated with them. Arming kids with information can empower them to take ownership of such issues.

At the municipal level, an important initiative would be to create regulations that control availability and curb access. Some of our neighboring towns have created such regulations in the form of licensing stores to enable tracking of e-cigarette sales and facilitating enforcement.

Licensing revenue can then be diverted to educating outlet owners and tied back to creating student awareness of these products.

There’s a sense of urgency here. Just like underage drinking and drug use, this disturbing trend needs to be dealt with now and at all levels, or it could be too late.

— Jyotika Bahree
Bahree is a member of West Windsor Council