WESTMONT – Nearly 50 people in 25 states have died this year from vaping-related illnesses, and as of Nov. 20, the number of lung injury cases tied to vaping has reached 2,290, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Illinois leads with a total of five confirmed deaths, while Indiana and California follow closely behind with four fatalities.
With the recent outbreak and the rise of lung injury cases, federal and local health officials have continued to warn against the use of electronic cigarettes, placing attention on children, teens and young adults as the most common users. The Illinois Department of Public Health has named e-cigarettes as the most popular tobacco product among youth, and just last year the CDC shared that 3.6 million middle and high school students have used an e-cigarette within the past month.
In partnership with Community Unit School District 201, Weiner spoke to a small crowd of staff, families and area residents about the major health risks caused by e-cigarettes. The public health department defined e-cigarettes as battery-operated devices “which produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine,” an addictive drug found in cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products.
What hooks youth is the way e-cigarettes are marketed and packaged. For starters, they come in many different flavors. From tiramisu to strawberries and cream, Weiner pulled up a few websites and showed an endless stream of options for e-juice on the projection screen. And the story continues on social media. There are plenty of short videos on Instagram, for example, in which users are doing vaping tricks.
“These are the things that appeal to younger people,” he said, dispelling the overwhelming rumor that e-cigarettes are “safe.” Aside from nicotine, cancer-causing chemicals, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds are among the harmful ingredients that make up aerosolized liquids and remain hidden behind bright, bubbly faces, stylized ads and fun, catchy names.
Nick Glenn, a Westmont police detective and school resource officer, said that e-cigarettes come in different shapes and sizes and to the naked eye they can be unrecognizable. “They make them now where they look exactly like zip drives,” Glenn said about brands such as Juul. “You have no proof until you actually catch them doing it.”
“It’s a subculture,” Westmont Junior High Assistant Principal Amy Quattrone said as she talked about the need to educate parents and guardians. “We’re older. It’s just like social media and apps and things like that. We aren’t aware of what the kids are really doing. When we see something that looks like a zip drive, we think it’s a zip drive.”
That’s why events with health advocates such as Weiner are crucial because they “get the word out to the parents” and create awareness on an escalating public health issue, Quattrone said.
In Downers Grove, the conversation continues. Meg Hewitt, the community relations coordinator at Downers Grove Grade School District 58, said that part of the district’s strategic plan involves hosting parent-focused workshops, and vaping is one of the most requested hot-button topics.
Outside of the district, Hewitt said informative events surrounding the specific issue have taken place. In November, Anderson’s Bookshop in Downers Grove hosted its monthly session of Raising a Resilient Child and welcomed Justin Wolfe, a clinical therapist at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health, to discuss vaping as the “new getaway.” Also in November, Weiner was invited back to the area as a guest speaker at the Downers Grove Public Library.
As the spotlight grows on e-cigarettes, Weiner and Glenn can’t help but take the particular conversation further. On Jan. 1, recreational marijuana will be legalized in Illinois, which adds another layer of concern, especially with children and teens. In 2016, the CDC revealed that one-third of U.S. middle and high school students have used e-cigarettes as a way to smoke marijuana.
Weiner, Glenn, Quattrone and Hewitt stressed that parents and guardians have to communicate with their children, no matter their age.
“I would also encourage parents just to have the conversation with their child, ask them what they know about vaping, if they’ve ever vaped – just to encourage open, honest communication,” Hewitt said.