By Ashley Loza
Kern Valley Sun
Kern Valley High School is seeing an increase in vaping among its students, and adults are finding the trend alarming.
In a letter sent home to parents last week, KVHS Principal John Meyers expressed his concern that many students were increasingly using vaping devices to ingest both nicotine and marijuana products on campus.
“Vaping” refers to the use of devices that deliver nicotine or THC, flavorings and other additives to the user via an inhaled aerosol that is created when the device heats the ingredients. These devices come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and may be referred to as e-cigarettes, vape pens, or by their brand names.
The products are used by adults primarily to quit or replace smoking cigarettes.
A newer product called the “JUUL,” a discreet device that resembles a USB flash drive, contains flavor pods with a nicotine content equivalent to an entire pack of cigarettes. It’s popular among children and is easy to conceal.
Cora Roberts, who owns the Vape Cabin in Lake Isabella, has been selling vapor products for about 5 years with the intention of helping smokers quit cigarettes. She says that she would only ever recommend this kind of nicotine content to someone who is accustomed to the nicotine content that comes from dipping.
Roberts notes that not all of the ingredients for vape devices are created equal. She is careful to stock her shop only with “juices” that come only from U.S.-based wholesalers or one heavily regulated wholesaler in the UK. These products contain varying levels of nicotine.
However, she notes that other, less safe products imported from China are sold regularly in tobacco shops. These unregulated products contain a host of chemicals that can cause health issues. Additionally, the transition to a more regulated marijuana industry in California means that products containing THC are also still undergoing the search for an effective regulation process.
But regardless of whether a user purchases safer products or intends to use it as a nicotine weaning method, Roberts, Meyers, and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams agree on one thing: vape products are not for children.
They fall under many of the same laws as tobacco products in California. They are not to be sold or given to users under 21 years of age, and Roberts says that juice makers were recently required to alter their labels to make them less appealing to children.
But children are getting their hands on these products anyway. Adams stated in an official advisory last year that between the years of 2011 and 2015, use of vaping devices among middle and high school students had increased by 900 percent.
Adams estimated that in 2018, 1 in 5 high school students were using vape products, while 1 in 20 middle school students were partaking.
It’s frustrating for business owners like Roberts, who also owns Ridgecrest Vapors in Ridgecrest. There is a strict, 21-and-over policy to even enter Roberts’ shops. She says that she’ll allow young children in with their parents if necessary for supervision, but they are required to sit at the “juice bar,” a bar that contains sample flavors but only samples with no nicotine. All of her products are locked in a case or behind the counter.
And if someone tries to enter without proper ID proving that they are of age, they are simply not permitted entry.
“[Products have] never gotten sold to anyone underage because we stop them at the door,” said Roberts, who has been running Ridgecrest Vapors for 5 years now.
Additionally, Roberts’ son, who runs the Vape Cabin, says that he refuses sales to anyone who mentions that they are purchasing for a minor.
Roberts notes that this is a far bigger problem in Lake Isabella than it has ever been for her in Ridgecrest.
“We’re going to make some enemies; I’m not going to lie,” said Roberts. “The high schoolers are not going to like it because they’ve already tried several times, and they get stopped every time right at the door.”
Because she runs such a tight ship, Roberts suggests the only two alternatives that come to mind – either parents are buying these products for their children and staying quiet, or tobacco shops are not regulating their sales to minors as well as they should be according to the law.
“It gives vapors a bad name for people who want to quit smoking,” said Roberts.
The issue, however, is not just a legal one; it’s also a health concern.
By and large, adults like Roberts and her son have used vape products to quit smoking cigarettes. The efficacy of this use is still being studied, along with the impact of nicotine addiction on the heart and the long-term effects of the aerosol ingredients.
But overall, there has been an acceptance that vaping is considerably healthier than smoking cigarettes, which contain numerous poisons and carcinogens.
However, if vaping helps smokers, there is not a convincing argument for exposing children to a nicotine addiction.
In Meyers’ letter home to parents, he noted that some of his students were vaping enough nicotine to equate to smoking 3-4 packs of cigarettes a day.
“They are hooked, addicted, and cannot make it through a school day without vaping. This is very alarming,” said Meyers.
And Roberts says that she would not wish the resulting withdrawal on anyone’s child.
These withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, irritability, depression and weight gain. Adams says that this addiction also harms a developing brain by impacting learning, memory and attention.
Additionally, while the positive effects of marijuana use are becoming more heavily studied and reported, it is still shown to have a negative impact on the developing brain of a child. Developing brains are potentially more sensitive to the cognitive impairments that come with marijuana use, such as planning, abstract thinking and inhibition of inappropriate responses, according to the American Psychological Association.
And it’s unhelpful that, according to Adams, nicotine addiction often leads to smoking cigarettes in the future anyway.
Adams, Roberts and Meyers all say that education is what is needed to reverse the trend.
A number of resources for parents are available at the Surgeon General’s website at https://e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov/.
On the local level, KVHS is partnering with Kern Behavioral Health to hold an informative presentation about these products at KVHS’s media center (library) on Thursday, March 28, at 5 p.m.
UPDATE: The Sun was contacted by a JUUL spokesperson who offered the following statement from the company on what JUUL is doing to combat underage use:
“JUUL Labs shares a common goal with policy makers, regulators, parents, school officials, and community stakeholders – preventing youth from initiating on nicotine. We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL. We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated. As we said before, our intent was never to have youth use JUUL products. We have taken dramatic action to contribute to solve this problem, which is why we implemented the JUUL Labs Action Plan to address underage use of JUUL products.