As national laws continue to change regarding the manufacture and sales of vaping and e-cigarette products, many Shelby County officials are concerned about the use of such devices among teens.
A nationwide ban on certain e-cigarette flavors, primarily mint and fruit flavors sold in cartridge-based e-cigarettes such as the pods made by Juul, was announced Thursday, Jan. 2 by U.S. officials. The new policy makes an exception for menthol and tobacco flavors and also fruit flavors sold in the form of “open tank” devices. Before that, on Dec. 20, President Donald Trump signed a new law raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products in the U.S. to 21.
Capt. Clay Hammac, commander of the Shelby County Drug Enforcement Task Force and executive director of Compact 2020, a local group aimed at preventing substance abuse among youth by utilizing proactive methods, wants parents to be aware of the potential dangers of underage vape use.
“This is probably one of the fastest growing and alarming trends we have seen among high school age students,” Hammac said.
While cigarette smoking is becoming increasingly taboo among high schoolers and young adults, most likely due to widely-published statistics on negative health effects resulting from use, Hammac said similar messages regarding vaping and e-cigarette devices have not been as well received.
“Many believe it is harmless, that it’s simply water vapor. Vaping is not harmless,” Hammac said. “We know it contains nicotine, and we know nicotine is addictive.”
What officials like Hammac fear is what the future will reveal regarding long-term impact of the devices on human health. The kind of social norming that is taking place with vaping—a “slow fade of social acceptance” as Hammac called it—is comparable to what once happened with cigarettes.
“We have fallen asleep at the wheel when it comes to messaging,” Hammac said. “Our students need to know this is not the norm—that they have the power to push back. We’re working tirelessly to get true and accurate information in the hands of parents.”
Hammac went on to call Juul a “predatory company” because of their marketing practices, although the company has denied that it targets teenagers.
According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, just one Juul pod is equivalent to 20 cigarettes. Hammac said that according to some students interviewed by local law enforcement, it was not uncommon for one teen to go through two or three pods in one night while riding around with friends. In addition, the products, which are about the size of a USB flash drive or smaller, are easily hidden from parents and school officials. Popular hiding places have included smart watches, vehicle key fobs and sweatshirt drawstrings.
LeAnn Rigney, chief juvenile probation officer and director of court services for the Juvenile Court of Shelby County, agrees teen vaping is a significant problem.
“It’s a hard one to catch. Unless we catch it on them, we’re not going to know,” she said.
Rigney said that because of the way the law is written, juvenile cases involving tobacco products—including vaping—are handled in district court, not juvenile court. Cases in municipalities are handled within the municipal courts.
Fortunately, Shelby County’s district court has been allowing docket time to handle all juveniles with tobacco charges together, so as to avoid mixing the teens or preteens with adults in district court.
According to Rigney, there were a total 66 cases of minors in possession of tobacco in Shelby County District Court in 2019. The data does not include cases in municipal courts.
What is unknown is how many underage users are keeping their habit hidden from parents and school officials.
“We were getting a lot of calls from school resource officers saying we need help with this,” Rigney said.
Jim Elliott, owner of Southern Vape in Columbiana, says his store is very strict about not selling to anyone underage. There are multiple stickers on the front door of the business stating that they ID all customers and that they do not sell to anyone under 19.
“We are very, very adamant on ID,” he said. “It is a very, very serious thing with me.”
As for the new law upping the minimum age, Elliott said as of Jan. 2 he had not received official word from the state ABC Board to change his store policy. However, Southern Vape stores have posted the new age of 21 on their premises.
Elliott also said that his store does not sell the controversial Juul products.
“We sell just vape. It’s just like a phone store selling phones—we are well versed in our industry,” he said. “We don’t even sell CBD in this store. All we sell is vape and essential oils.”
Elliott did, however, indicate that he feels the vape industry has not been given the chance for its voice to be properly heard.
“Why aren’t they including me in the discussion?” he asked.
Another major concern of Hammac’s is something that is not purchased locally but is easily available over the Internet—vape devices with high concentrations of THC—the component of marijuana that induces a euphoric high. The traditional marijuana plant that was ground and smoked in the 1960s and ’70s contained about 5-percent THC, Hammac said, while some of today’s concentrates can contain upwards of 90-percent THC, according to product packaging. Because the products are not approved by the FDA, however, there is no way to know how accurate the packaging is without forensic testing.
“The vast majority of vape-related deaths, according to the CDC, have been linked to the use of high concentrations of THC used in those devices,” Hammac said, adding, “once we cross this threshold of legalizing marijuana in the state of Alabama, there is no turning back.”
But laws, he added, can never take the place of a parent or guardian talking to their child.
“It’s time to sit down at the dinner table and have an age-appropriate conversation,” Hammac said. “Don’t simply be responsive—be proactive.”