The vape or e-cigarette ban on flavors that kids might find appealing -- such as fruit and mint -- has begun. It's a relief to school officials and parents, but vaping is still at the forefront of safety concerns for teenagers -- with one in four inhaling, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
So, first the good news: On Jan. 2, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a policy to enforce unauthorized flavored e-cigarette products. Under this policy, companies that do not cease manufacture, distribution and sale of unauthorized flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes (other than tobacco or menthol) within 30 days risk FDA enforcement actions.
As of Jan. 7, a total of 2,602 cases of hospitalized e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) or deaths have been reported to CDC from 50 states, the District of Columbia, and two U.S. territories (Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands).
Fifty-five deaths have been confirmed in 27 states and the District of Columbia. One of these was in Connecticut. The CDC noted that additional deaths are under investigation.
The latest national findings suggest that products containing THC – a psychoactive component derived from marijuana – are playing a major role in the outbreak, according to the Connecticut Department of Public health. and education officials across the country have been raising alarms over widespread underage use of e-cigarettes and other vaping products.
In October, the Connecticut Department of Public Health reported three more Connecticut residents who were ill with lung injuries possibly related to using e-cigarettes or vaping, bringing the total to 34 cases that have been reported to the state DPH since August. Seventeen of those cases were in Fairfield County.
Last summer, Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation raising the legal age to buy cigarettes, cigars, vaping pens and other tobacco paraphernalia from 18 to 21
With all the information circling the teen vaping issue, school officials are looking for ways to deter students from starting the practice in the first place.
A click on the website for one of the more popular e-cigarette companies -- Juul -- has this warning across the top of the landing page in bold white letters against a black background: "This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical." Some online websites selling the products also carry the warning and screen out buyers under 21.
School districts across Fairfield County are making nicotine cessation classes and programs available to students who already vape kick the habit. Greenwich High School, Westhill, and Stamford High Schools have them, among others.
The fight to keep nicotine out of the hands of teenagers got a boost in October when Connecticut past a law that prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes and vaping products to anyone under 21. Fines are substantial.
Stamford High School Principal Raymond Manka said vaping is one of the safety concerns he has for students there.
"I'm concerned for the health and safety of my kids in all respects and regards, whether they are crossing the street to get to school safely, with their earbuds in, or ingesting nicotine. And they think, 'Oh. It's not cigarettes so it's not so bad for me. but the method they are using to deliver the nicotine to their bodies is a pretty serious problem we have for our young people and adults."
Manka believes students are aware of the dangers of vaping and nicotine addiction and says "though not scientific" he's seen a decrease in the number of students vaping at SHS, a viewpoint based on less evidence in trash around the school from about a year ago when he'd regularly notice vaping materials in trash containers.
He attributes the decline to the information about the risky behavior readily available on social media.
"Students are wise and they see information on social media about people who have fatalities that are particularly associated with nicotine and this delivery method. It is startling. It took a long time for the ill effects of lung disease to become evident."
Of primary concern, Manka noted, is how quickly young people can get addicted to vaping.
"Nicotine is one of the most addictive chemicals for humans," Manka said, adding he worries "sly marketing" and the "simple manner of delivery" through e-cigarettes, teens are exposed to dangerous chemicals, "that our young people, the future of tomorrow, are facing cardio-vascular (illness) and serious addiction."
Self-service displays are prohibited for electronic nicotine delivery systems or vapor products except in adult-only facilities, which means a teenager going into a convenience store to buy vaping products now has to ask a sales clerk for the product kept behind the counter.
The law provides an extra layer of prevention for teens getting the products.
"It's not directly available, everything behind the counter. The age law change is another layer of deterrent and you have to show an ID. It's another layer of complication for somebody trying to get this material in their hands," Manka said.
He also likes that the packaging has changed to look more like cigarette packages, rather than attractively packaged to market to young people.
And Manka has noticed a decline around Stamford High School in students vaping.
"This is not scientific but when I look around the hallways, in bathrooms, in the trash, I don't see it everywhere like a year ago. I don't see it regularly now. I don't see as many cartridges," he said.
"I do know there were kids who came by to tell me they were worried about their friends so we started to have some programs."
He also heard from parents telling him about a great program at Westhill High School so Manka looked into these.
His school began to offer programs about the dangers of vaping and a vaping cessation option for students caught doing it.
So rather than look upon the behavior as "deviant" that requires punitive action to students caught vaping, Manka had "a different take on it. We are talking about addiction" and acted on it.
Stamford High School partnered with a smoking cessation program called Liberation Programs. Based in Greenwich, the behavioral health organization treats substance use disorders and Stamford High School students can take a smoking cessation program through the partnership.
Students at SHS caught vaping can choose to go through a low-cost cessation program, paid by some insurance providers -- and there is financial help available for students who cannot pay for it.
"So we're not just punitive but have prescriptive measures."