The coughs of a hospitalized teen echoed through the Brookside School auditorium in North Merrick on Jan. 29. A news report was projected above the stage, and alleged that the boy’s illness was caused by vaping, presenting a stark warning to the students in attendance: That could be you, too.
The scene kicked off the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District’s latest seminar, “Vapes and Vaping: What You Need to Know,” which presented the dangers of using e-cigarettes and vaping devices to more than 150 parents and teens. According to Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, the event’s keynote speaker, there has been a significant uptick of youth vaping in recent years.
“I have never seen anything more addictive and being used more by our children today than these vapes,” said Ryder, who has previously worked to root out other dangerous drugs, like opioids, from the community. The devices’ addictiveness is due to nicotine in e-liquids, which can be “10 times more potent than the nicotine in a cigarette,” he added.
As vaping technology developed, devices got smaller. The popular e-cigarette JUUL, for example, is no larger than a USB drive. E-liquids can come in sweet, appealing flavors such as cotton candy or watermelon, Ryder explained, and some also contain tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the active ingredient in marijuana that creates a high — with a stronger potency than traditional marijuana. These factors have caused increased concerns about vaping. “This is big tobacco all over again,” he said.
The National Youth Tobacco Survey, published by the Food and Drug Administration last September, found that 27.5 percent of high school teens nationwide smoke e-cigarettes. The most popular flavors were fruity, followed by menthol and mint.
Last year, the Nassau County Legislature voted to outlaw the sale of flavored e-liquids other than menthol and mint, which are still available at shops that sell vapes. Similar legislation did not become law at the state level. Possessing marijuana or THC e-liquids is decriminalized in New York state and results in a fine, Ryder said.
The event also featured a panel of teen health and wellness experts, including pediatric pulmonologist Mary Cataletto, Tempo Group members Cindy Wolff and Robert Meislin, district Assistant Superintendent Michael Harrington, and student representatives Emma Bhansingh and Gabriella Giobardo. Tempo Group is a nonprofit that provides substance-abuse counseling for teenagers.
“Your brain is developing, and you are more susceptible to addiction because it primes the reward center in your brain,” said Cataletto, referring to young smokers. At least 90 percent of adult smokers started smoking before they were 18, she added, and inhaling nicotine makes you more likely to do other drugs.
“Six years ago, we recognized that this was a new problem at the time,” Harrington said. He said the Central District was an early leader against the problem, noting its partnership with Tempo Group to have a substance abuse counselor at every school building. If students are caught with vapes, they have the option to go through the group’s Teen Intervene program to become educated on the dangers of vaping in addition to being issued a five-day out-of-school suspension.
Harrington added that there were 85 vaping-related suspensions in the district last year. So far, that number was reduced to 22 suspensions, “but 22 is [still] too much,” he said. “We’re seeing it move in the right direction, but we still have a tremendous amount of work to do.”
“It would be a shame for our youth to have their lives ruined over something so preventable,” said Wendy Tepfer, director of the Community Parent Center and organizer of the seminar. Tepfer planned the event alongside the high school district, the adjacent elementary school districts, State Sen. John Brooks, Assemblyman Dave McDonough and Nassau County Legislators Tom McKevitt and Steve Rhoads.
Ryder recommended that if your child uses a vaping device, the best option is communication. “Sit them down, talk to them and explain to them” the dangers of vaping, he said, adding that an NCPD officer would always be willing to give the same advice in person.