State and regional public health officials say that while there is no one fool-proof method to discourage teenagers from vaping, a low-key program implemented last week in Cheshire is a good example of the kind of outside-the-box thinking needed to address a health issue approaching epidemic proportions.
Chesprocott, the regional health department for Cheshire, Prospect and Wolcott, quietly put in place a one-day offer last week in which teenagers could trade in vaping equipment for free food at four area businesses, no questions asked. The offer, which was circulated via social media, resulted in the return of about two-dozen pieces of vaping paraphernalia, said Maura Esposito, the department’s director of health.
“We just wanted to give them a safe place,” Esposito said. “We can’t give them negativity. It’s an addiction.”
The four businesses that participated were Shef’s Bagels, Cheshire Coffee, Pop’s Pizza and the town’s Dairy Queen location on South Main Street. The one-day offer was done on Wednesday, a day when Cheshire schools were closed, in order to give teenagers more time to take advantage of the offer.
“I figured if it could help a few kids, it was worth it,” Pete DeBisschop, the longtime owner of Pop’s Pizza on West Main Street, said.
Ron Sotere, manager of the Dairy Queen, said nearly a dozen teenagers traded in their vaping equipment for Mini-Blizzard ice cream treats.
“Of all the kids who brought in their vaping equipment, only one of them was a young man,” Sotere said. “I have some teenage girls that work for me and they vape, too.”
Natalie Hagerty, a sophomore at Cheshire High School, said she was not surprised about Sotere’s observation. She told panelists at a vaping forum held last week in Cheshire that while she no longer vapes, she took it up to fit in with other high school students, first in Wolcott and then in Cheshire.
When asked after the forum why her female peers vape, Hagerty said she thinks that in some cases, it is to impress boys and to fit in.
“I think a lot of them want to quit, but they don’t know all the facts,” Hagerty said. “But it’s romanticized on the Internet. It’s the cool, accepted thing to do.”
Another such food-for-vapes swap is planned for later this month, Esposito said.
Kathy Hanley, behavioral health director for the Western Connecticut Coalition, agreed with Esposito about the need for positivity when empowering teens to stop vaping. The organization works on behavioral health and substance abuse issues in nearly four dozen communities in New Haven, Fairfield and Litchfield counties and has offices in Goshen, Danbury and Waterbury.
“While it’s important to know that 14.7 percent of our kids reported vaping in 2017, it’s nice to put a twist on that and say 85 percent of the kids have chosen not to,” Hanley said. “It’s important to mention that and sort of empower the young people that are making those decisions that might seem kind of hard because they think they are in the minority and that’s not true.”
The forum was organized by state Sen. Mary Abrams, D-Meriden, chairwoman of the legislature’s Public Health Committee.
“Vaping is not the low-risk, healthy alternative to smoking it was initially sold as,” Abrams said. “This forum doesn’t just represent an opportunity for us to spread information and awareness about vaping products — it also presents an opportunity for state officials to learn more about vaping products from members of the public, especially students who see them used in schools. I plan on putting forward legislation to protect young people who have been insidiously targeted by this industry from the dangers of vaping. We must protect our children and provide them with the best opportunity to lead healthy lives.”
To that end, state Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said she would like to require a deposit on reusable vaping pods and a move at the federal level to eliminate flavors used for e-cigarettes. Linehan is a co-chairwoman on the legislature’s Committee on Children.
“Some people are collecting the empty pods, refilling them again with who knows what kind of substances and reselling them to kids,” she said.
Another proactive method cited by panelists at the anti-vaping forum was a pilot program at Greenwich High School earlier this year.
The school’s parent-teacher organization funded a pilot program for the purchase and installation of several vaping detectors.
Vaping detectors have been installed in two bathrooms at the high school, according to Sasha Houlihan, a spokeswoman for the district.
“The vaping detectors have sensors that detect vaping smoke in a room,” Houlihan said. “The vaping detector then sends text message and/or emails to specific GHS staff such that they can investigate the room the vaping smoke was detected.”
The vaping detectors came online Feb. 1, she said.
Increased focus on vaping comes as officials with the state Department of Public Health said Friday that six more Connecticut residents who were ill with lung injuries possibly related to the practice had been reported to the agency. That brings the total number of illness cases to 31, with three of the people involved remaining hospitalized.
The cases involve residents from seven counties in Connecticut, including 16 in Fairfield and 8 from New Haven. The age breakdown of the patients is:
Five under 18 years of age.
Seven between 18 and 24.
Eight between 25 to 34.
Eleven who are 35 years of age and older.
All but two of the hospitalizations occurred between June and October, according to DPH officials.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Oct. 8, 1,299 cases of vaping-related lung injury had been reported from 49 states and 1 U.S. territory. There have been 26 deaths confirmed among 21 states, including one from Connecticut, according to CDC officials.
Connecticut Department of Public Health Commissioner Renée D. Coleman-Mitchell said the “outbreak of illnesses and deaths appears to be far from over.”
“The recent death of a Connecticut resident with vaping-related lung disease reinforces the importance of my public health recommendation that Connecticut residents consider not using e-cigarettes and vaping products,” Coleman-Mitchell said, adding the death of the state resident occurred Oct. 3. “This recommendation includes not buying vaping products off the street, from another person, or modifying or adding other unregulated substances to these products.”