About 90 people attended the “Let’s Talk About Vaping” information event on Jan. 30, presented by WMS, Minnechaug Regional High School (MRHS), Green Meadows School, the school committee, Rotary Club and the Hampden–Wilbraham Partners for Youth Coalition.
An “InfoExpo” of tables had been set up for people to browse before dinner. Covered with pamphlets and signs aimed at informing parents and their middle school-aged children, tables were manned by volunteers from MRHS’s Above the Influence Club, WMS nurses, Behavioral Health Network, District Attorney Anthony Gulluni’s office, Wilbraham Police Department School Resource Officer Dan Menard and students from the Western New England University Neuropharmacology Department.
Quizzes on the effects of vaping were available on the tables that people could take on their phones via a QR code or on laptops set up in the cafeteria.
WMS Principal Tom Mazza said the most important thing he wanted to come from the event was awareness. It was also important, he said, to answer the question “what do families want our role to be in this? We want to make sure there’s a consistent message to what’s being preached at home.”
After dinner, a four-person panel gave presentations, brainstormed and polled the audience, and answered questions about vaping. The keynote speaker was Dr. Jilla Sabetti, a neuropharmacology professor at Western New England University.
Sabetti called vaping an “inhalant epidemic” that posed “impacts on our health.” She is not the only one to characterize vaping in this manner and pointed out that Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams officially declared e-cigarette use among adolescents “an epidemic” in 2018.
After conducting a real-time poll of the audience via text message about vaping concerns and whether parents have talked about it with their kids, Sabetti shared statistics. She informed the audience that the national average of high school students who admitted to regular vaping was 27.5 percent and that 10.5 percent of middle schoolers admitting to it.
Drawing on her background as a neuropharmacologist, Sabetti explained that aerosols are solid particles suspended in a liquid and that when inhaled, those particles stay in the lungs.
Sabetti told Reminder Publishing that “there’s a misperception that it is healthy to vape because it’s just water vapor, but it’s actually aerosols.” She said the most important thing is to “be informed. Know what you’re putting into your body based on information.”
Whether it comes in the form of pods, e-cigarettes, mods, e-cigars or pipes, Sabetti said they are all nicotine delivery systems. She added that pods contain much higher levels of nicotine than combustible tobacco cigarettes.
That fact is even more insidious because, Sabetti said, nicotine can be as hard to quit as heroin and teen brains are “extremely sensitive to nicotine.” She said exposure of the developing adolescent brain to nicotine can cause issues with memory, attention, learning, mood and impulse control.
The next speaker, Wilbraham-based Pediatrician Amy Kasper, began her presentation by asking the audience about normal-looking items that are actually nicotine delivery devices. She gave examples of a hoodie, a backpack, an asthma inhaler, a key fob, an EpiPen and a cell phone. Guesses from the audience ran the gamut, but she said the EpiPen was the only item not known to be something that could be made to deliver nicotine.
Kasper listed the various ingredients in vaping products, which include nicotine or THC, cancer-causing chemicals, ultrafine particles, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and vitamin E acetate, which she noted has been found in almost all patients hospitalized for vaping-related lung injury.
Aside from the ingredients in the inhalants, Kasper said the devices themselves pose danger of battery explosions, flavoring such a cinnamon that can cause damage to the lungs, increase voltage leading to a stronger hit, disreputable liquid refills that increase the likelihood of exposure to dangerous substances and handling nicotine, one ml of which can be fatal to a toddler.
“Talk early with your kids, talk often. It’s okay to tell your kids this is a bad thing to do,” Kasper said.
During a question and answer period, resident Don Flannery suggested that “teenagers have a need to alter their consciousness” and that the answer is to find something to replace vaping, using peers as role models.
WMS Assistant Principal Serenity Greenwood began by asking the families, “What do you think the role of public schools should be when it comes to vaping?” Each of the tables discussed the question and most settled on a balance of education and “harsher” punishment.
Greenwood explained the school’s “preventative-based health curriculum,” including the Life Skills program, which is practiced at all grade levels, and the seventh-grade “Catch My Breath” program. She also said students are taught about how vaping is marketed to their age group, given facts on vaping and are engaged in conversations around the topic.
As far as consequences at Wilbraham Middle School, Greenwood said if a student is caught vaping, parents are notified, the student’s discipline record and the details of the incident are reviewed and consequences are determined based on that information. Statistics on vaping at WMS are available on the website, Greenwood said.
One of the panelists was neither a health professional nor an educator. Mike Talaia is a senior at MRHS who spoke about vaping from his perspective as a student. His poll question was what can parents do to influence their kids not to start vaping? Solutions that came up included open communication, being inclusive with conversations and setting a good example.
Talaia agreed, saying “support from parents is so important,” as is finding good peer groups.
“What I would tell someone who would want to try vaping is it’s just not worth it,” Talaia said. For those who have tried it, “it’s never a bad idea to stop” and “if you lose friends, so be it.”
Talaia said, “there’s an idea that the majority of people [vape] but that’s just not true.” Resident Dacia Hoskinson asked if vaping is a severe problem in high school. Talaia told her that although it is more common among freshmen, “as I grew up, it calmed down because people are more mature.”
Sara Moriarty of the Gandara Center in Springfield had prepared a presentation on the way the tobacco industry, or “big tobacco,” which owns many of the vaping companies, targets vaping at youth. While Moriarty was unable to attend the event, Gina Kahn from the coalition gave the presentation in her absence.
Kahn said youth are targeted by making vaping products sweet, cheap and easy to get. When she asked why big tobacco targets youth, despite it being illegal, one student pointed out that the companies are “recruiting customers for life.”
Kahn presented local data that showed that in 2014, 11.4 percent of teens smoked combustible tobacco cigarettes, but the number had dropped to 1.7 percent in 2019. The opposite was true for e-cigarette use, which had increased from 24 percent in 2015 to and 31.5 percent in 2019, higher than the national average.
Kahn touted the restrictions on vaping products introduced in late 2019 by Gov. Charlie Baker as “leading the nation.”
“The most important message is we have to speak louder than big tobacco,” Kahn said.
She encouraged parents to be educated, aware, know the laws, communicate with youth and to get involved by connecting youth with ways to quit.