By Mike Conn and Ronny Reyes
With concern growing about lung disease and other disorders caused by e-cigarettes and a surge in the number of children who use them, the federal and state governments have urged the widening of restrictions against vaping. Officials have suggested tripling federal taxes on e-cigarettes and their accessories, as well as banning flavored cartridges.
Sea Cliff’s Alison Camardella, president of the North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse, said that vaping prevention is among the most important actions the organization undertakes. While it is common knowledge that cigarettes pose health risks, hundreds of people, Camardella said, are being hospitalized with vaping-related illnesses, which are not yet fully understood.
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg, as far as I’m concerned, when learning about the risks of vaping,” she said.
What she does know, Camardella said, is that vaping is a growing threat among children and teens. The difficulty of detecting e-cigarette vapor, social media’s perception of vaping as “cool” and a lack of early education to make children aware of its health risks are just a few of the factors that have made it such a significant part of teen culture.
“It’s only natural for kids to want to try the latest things on the market,” Camardella said. “It’s our job as parents and members of the community to educate them as to why they shouldn’t.”
Flavored e-cigarette cartridges, she said, attract children. Things that taste like candy attracts kids, she said, not nicotine flavoring.
However, Tammy Mink, owner of Shore Vapes in Glen Cove, said that flavored cartridges have more of a positive impact than a negative one. Her business helps adults quit smoking cigarettes, she said, estimating that about 90 percent of her customers use flavors to do so, because tobacco flavoring only brings cigarettes back to mind. “They don’t want to be reminded of that last cigarette,” Mink said.
She said she understands that officials are trying to improve children’s health, and she supports going after businesses that have sold e-cigarettes to minors. But Mink expressed concern about a growing black market in e-cigarette cartridges that she believes will be significantly worse for people’s health than the commercially made brands. And, she said, many people will go back to smoking cigarettes if flavors are banned, and the nicotine high is ultimately what attract minors to vaping, not flavors.
“These laws are going to hurt more than they’re trying to help,” Mink said.
Locust Valley High School is being proactive in acting against vaping, said Principal Patrick DiClemente, joining schools across the country. Vaping is one of the biggest health threats facing teens today, he said.
Students and parents have been encouraged to attend district-run seminars and workshops to provide information on the negative potential effects vaping can have on the body.
The district has put several policies in place to curb the use of vaping in its schools. According to DiClemente, if students are found vaping on campus, the paraphernalia is confiscated and they are required to meet with school officials, as are their parents. Treatment options are discussed, but the students could potentially also be suspended. DiClemente stressed that suspension is not a penalty he wants to use, and he would rather see offenders participate in a therapy program or vaping workshops.
DiClemente said students might engage in this risky behavior for a number of reasons that include financial, educational and social stress, as well as a disconnect from the environment around them. While he noted that he understands the argument that flavored vape products help adults quit smoking, he said they have a negative effect on young people, and he is committed to helping teens who have become or may become addicted to vaping.
“My focus is strictly on a person between the age of 12 and 21,” said DiClemente, “and I’m committed to the fact that, because of vaping and flavored products, the performance of students is not at a peak level.”
Charles Rizzuto, a health and physical education teacher at Oyster Bay High School, said listening to students is a key in curbing vaping among teens. Many of the district’s students are becoming active in th effort. A group called SAVE — Students Against Vaping and E-cigarettes — meets with the administration to discuss strategies to get vaping out of the school. Additionally, Rizzuto said, he believes that it’s up to teachers to educate students on the dangers of vaping.
“With all of the misinformation that exists and has existed in regard to vaping, health class and school in general may be the best place for them to get good information,” he said. “I think schools have played a large role in helping to get a handle on the vaping problem to this point.”
Nassau County has also begun restricting vaping and e-cigarettes. County Executive Laura Curran launched Operation Clear the Air on Sept. 26 to crack down on counterfeit vaping products. In the following days, there were 15 violations for counterfeit products issued to businesses on the South Shore and in Mineola.
County Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, of Glen Cove, said that the Legislature was also considering banning flavored e-cigarette and vaping products that appear to be targeted at teens and young adults. “When you put out a product like bubble gum flavor,” DeRiggi-Whitton asked, “who do they think they’ll attract?” She added that the county needed to consider banning the smoking of these products in public parks, and keeping advertisements about them away from schools, similar to the way cigarettes are regulated.
Legislator Joshua Lafazan, of Woodbury, agreed. Lafazan said he was particularly concerned about “popcorn lung,” a nickname for bronchiolitis obliterans, which damages the lungs. He planned to host an informational seminar on vaping for the North Shore communities on Tuesday at Syosset High School.
“I’ve spoken to pediatrician friends of mine who tell me that this addiction is real,” Lafazan said, “and are warning about popcorn lung.”
Dr. Sharon Harris, executive director of Glen Cove’s Substance Abuse Free Environment Inc., said that vaping has become a top priority for the nonprofit organization, which provide alcohol and drug prevention services throughout the city. Harris said that SAFE was working with its partners in the city school district to better inform students about the dangers of vaping and to bolster peer-resistance skills so they can reject vaping and help their friends avoid it as well.
While schools and organizations like SAFE and CASA can help curb vaping among children and teens, Camardella said, effective prevention starts at home. Along with talking about the risks of vaping, parents can engage in role-playing with their children to teach them refusal skills. Most important, she said, parents need to keep communication open with their children so they will be comfortable discussing vaping.