All the middle school students raised their hands.
Autumn Sky Burns had just asked roughly 25 high-ability learners from the three Papillion-La Vista middle schools whether any of them had friends who used e-cigarettes.
Burns, the Sarpy County coordinator of Tobacco Education & Advocacy of the Midlands, had asked the same question of students the year before. She estimates that only 10 percent of a similar group had raised their hands last year.
“I’m nervous that people won’t really understand what’s happening until we have an entire generation of kids addicted to nicotine because of e-cigarettes,” Burns said.
That’s what Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he was trying to prevent earlier this month when he introduced more restrictions on e-cigarettes in an attempt to curb their use among youths.
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The FDA says it will limit sales of many flavored e-cigarettes to bricks-and-mortar outlets that have either age-restricted entry or areas inside stores that are not accessible to people under 18. The FDA also will require stepped-up age verification for online sales.
Nationally and locally, officials are concerned that teenage e-cigarette usage could lead to nicotine addiction early in life. Nicotine may affect adolescent brain development, health experts say, and officials fear that e-cigarette use could lead to regular cigarette usage.
When asked if he vaped, a 17-year-old who was with his friends at Omaha’s Memorial Park last week pulled a silver Suorin brand vaping device out of his pocket. The boy, who was hanging out at the park after school, agreed to comment on the condition that his name and high school not be listed.
The boy said he started vaping at 15 because it gave him a buzz.
“All day, every day,” the teenager said when asked how much he used it. That includes using it in school hallways, bathrooms and, occasionally, in the classroom, he said.
The teenager said he previously used a Juul, a product that accounts for more than 70 percent of e-cigarette retail sales. He said he used to go through one Juul pod a day. Each pod contains about the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, according to the company.
At this point, the boy said, he’s most likely addicted, but he said he likes to think he could stop if he really needed to. He said he hasn’t noticed any health consequences.
The teen estimated that 80 percent of his classmates use e-cigarettes. Despite needing to be 18 to buy the products, the boy said vaping devices often can be purchased from friends or at convenience stores that don’t check IDs.
School administrators across Nebraska and the nation are talking about vaping, said David Friedli, principal at Conestoga Junior-Senior High School in Murray, Nebraska.
“It’s rampant,” he said.
Vaping really took off at his school when Juuls were introduced, he said. It’s hard to detect the small devices at school as students duck into bathrooms or around corners to use them.
It’s the use at school that leads Friedli to suspect that many students already are addicted.
“Parents don’t always like to hear that, but give me another reason why,” Friedli said. “Why do they have to do it during school time?”
Along with the restrictions, the FDA and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the findings of the National Youth Tobacco Survey. It showed that vaping had increased 78 percent among high school students since 2017 and almost 48 percent among middle schoolers.
In the survey, 3.6 million kids reported vaping at least once in the previous 30 days. In addition, 28 percent of high school vapers said they used e-cigarettes at least 20 days a month.
JohnCarl Denkovich, program coordinator for the Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition, said those statistics are not surprising, given what officials have noticed locally. Toward the end of 2017 and into this year, requests from local schools for his group to give presentations on vaping risks have increased as school officials, parents and school resource officers have noticed a sharp uptick in usage.
“I think parents are going to schools and police departments and saying, ‘What are you doing about this? How is this possible?’ ” Denkovich said.
Denkovich said the presentations his organization gives are targeted at middle schoolers because that’s often when kids start to experiment with vaping.
Omaha Police Officer John Martinez, a school resource officer at Millard North High School, said the vaping products he has confiscated at the school come in different colors and shapes.
Juuls are skinny and sleek and look like USB drives. One type of Suorin is a small rectangle that is similar in size to an iPod.
Martinez said he started noticing students using the devices last year, and the volume has only increased this year. They are especially popular, he said, among the freshman class.
When parents are notified about their kids having the devices, some don’t know what the devices are or that they contain nicotine, Martinez said. Some kids also don’t know that what they’re inhaling contains nicotine or that it can be addictive, he said.
Kenny Allen said he started smoking cigarettes while underage and smoked for six years before he traded traditional cigarettes for vaping.
“It was life-changing,” Allen said of the change. “It was breathing, smelling, tasting better.”
Allen now manages the Generation V location near 78th and Cass Streets, where the walls are lined with testimonials from customers who used to smoke cigarettes.
“I smoked for 15 years,” one sign reads. “I quit using Zombie Blood-flavored vapor.”
Another sign references someone who had spent 35 years smoking. The years noted on the signs ranged anywhere from two to 40.
When e-cigarettes first came out, Allen said, that was their intended use: Adults looking to stop smoking cigarettes could transition to e-cigarettes as a “healthier” alternative.
The flavored juices help adults kick a habit that’s ruining their lives, Allen said.
For the most part, the devices and juices sold at Generation V are bulkier than the sleek, smaller devices officials said they’re finding in schools. Juuls are sold at the Generation V store, but they are available only to people 21 years old and older.
Allen said it’s heartbreaking to think that teenagers are picking up e-cigarettes and using them without knowing what’s in them.
Allen and vaping opponents alike said everyone needs to be educated on what e-cigarettes are and what’s in them.
“I think that’s what we’re trying to stop,” Allen said, “is the regret of a kid getting into something and realizing years later when they’re able to logically think about it and go, ‘Man, that was stupid.’ ”
This report includes material from the Washington Post.
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