Teens against the vaping trend

With nicotine flavors such as “cotton candy” and “cupcake,” e-cigarettes are highly popular among teenagers. But two high school friends are helping their peers quit Big Tobacco’s latest trend.

Lexi Accinelli (left) and Meg Ford (right) observe a bag of marijuana vape pens and other paraphernalia used at Rio Americano High School for educational purposes.

Lexi Accinelli (left) and Meg Ford (right) observe a bag of marijuana vape pens and other paraphernalia used at Rio Americano High School for educational purposes.

Photo by karlos rene ayala

Lexi Accinelli sat on her bed in a panic. The Rio Americano High School student closed the YouTube video, looked down at her last marijuana vape cartridge and pulled out her phone. For the teenager, an empty dab pen meant a sleepless night. As she messaged a dealer on Snapchat to come to her house, she peered down the stairs to make sure her parents weren’t by the front porch. Within minutes, a 15-year-old and his friend were outside.

“I would always have such anxiety when he would come, because if my mom came out, this would be done,” Accinelli remembered. “They threw it in my window. I tied the money to a rock, because I live in a two-story house.”

Accinelli used liquid marijuana cartridges containing almost triple the amount of THC as a joint. Her classmate Meg Ford preferred nicotine. She used a Breeze vape she nicknamed “Bernie.”

Ford avoided running out of juice by buying extra pods and e-liquid in advance, though as she drove to San Francisco with Accinelli and friends one Saturday, “Bernie” needed a charge. Ford hadn’t had a fix since that morning, and over the course of the day with her dead vape, she unraveled.

“I was freaking out, snapping at everyone, at my little sister in the backseat talking at normal volume with her friend,” Ford recalled. “I couldn’t focus on anything. Eventually I pulled over in Richmond to buy cigarettes, because I couldn’t exist.”

Accinelli, 17, and Ford, 18, have stopped vaping for months now. They’ve become leaders in the fight against teenage vaping, though they still struggle with addiction.

“If I’m being totally honest, I miss it so much,” Ford acknowledged. “It is the best feeling I’ve ever felt. It’s incredibly hard.”

The Sacramento teens’ experiences are increasingly common.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey measured a 78% increase in electronic cigarette use among high school students. While people may believe that vaping produces only water vapor, what billows out of electronic devices such as Breeze, Juul and Suorin is aerosol, also used in hairspray. Also alarming: In one Juul pod, there are 59 milligrams of nicotine, equal to the amount in 20 cigarettes, studies show.

After the FDA announced in November 2018 that it would restrict sales of fruit-flavored vape cartridges, Juul Labs said it would stop selling fruit-flavored nicotine pods to stores and shut down its U.S. Facebook and Instagram accounts. At a congressional hearing in July, Juul’s co-founder said the company had made “missteps” but “never wanted” minors to use its products.

It is against the law for anyone under 21 to buy, sell and be sold vapes, yet any teen familiar with Instagram or Snapchat knows how prevalent they’ve become. Local school officials are taking notice as well.

“I started noticing the vape stores popping up on all the corners,” said Bob Erickson, safe schools program manager at the San Juan Unified School District. “I started learning that a lot of our students were vaping and administrators were confiscating vape pens from the schools. Over this past school year, we have had more complaints that vaping is going on in bathrooms.”

Starting this fall, San Juan Unified, which includes Rio Americano High, will test vaping sensors at Del Campo High School that can detect increased moisture in the air and send an alert to the vice principal. If the sensors uncover a vaping epidemic, Erickson added, “Unfortunately we have to take some money that should go to teaching and learning and use it on safety and security.”

Anne Del Core is founder of Sacramento’s Anti Vaping Alliance and helped coordinate an “Up In Vape” event at Rio Americano High School where students spoke about their experiences.

Photo by karlos rene ayala

Teachers and parents are now learning that if they want to reach students about the health dangers of vaping, they need to let other students share their stories, said Anne Del Core, founder of Sacramento’s Anti Vaping Alliance.

“Students respond to peer-to-peer education,” she said. “They don’t want to listen to the adults.”

Del Core helped coordinate an “Up In Vape” event at Rio Americano High, where Accinelli and Ford spoke about their experiences. Many students are attracted to smoking “50 nic,” the average amount of nicotine in a Juul.

“This girl came up to us afterwards and said that we were really brave for telling our stories, and that she quit, too, and went to rehab for nicotine addiction,” Accinelli said. “She said she’s not brave enough to go up there and tell everyone because she’s afraid she’ll get made fun of.”

Because of nicotine flavors such as popcorn and cotton candy, the student activists say vaping has become widespread at Sacramento high schools. “I’m still friends with my friends who vape and stuff, because I don’t want to cut out, like, everybody,” Ford said.

Celebrities on social media helped make vaping fashionable. Local teens do the same, though they often include self-deprecating jokes about addiction.

“People will be like, ’Isn’t it funny how this thing is hurting me?’ Or, ’I hope I get lung cancer one day. Lung cancer is sexy.’ I’ll see captions like that,” Ford said. “All you get is the marketing from the companies, and the general ’vaping is bad’ thing. You don’t get what it’s actually doing to your body.”

Vaping has been linked to an incurable lung disease known as popcorn lung, which creates inflammation and scarring in the lung’s airways. According to a statement posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, “94 possible cases of severe lung illness associated with vaping were reported in 14 states from June 28, 2019 to August 15, 2019.” The CDC is further investigating the possible link between e-cigarettes and lung diseases with consultations to the departments of health in states such as California, Wisconsin, Illonois and more.

Students know vaping isn’t good for them, but overcoming addiction and a perceived cool factor can be a tall order for high school kids trying to fit in.

“I do feel as if the Big Tobacco industry was very slick and thoughtful about creating a product that would have such wide appeal,” Del Core said. “There’s a lot of research about how Juul targeted young people early on.”

Juul, a Bay Area start-up, sold a 35% stake to cigarette maker Altria late last year.

Some legislative action is being taken. On July 10, Assembly Bill 1639 passed the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee on a 16-0 vote. It would prevent e-cigarette companies from advertising at sporting events and concerts, and aims to eliminate youth-friendly flavor names such as “milkshake” and “cupcake.”

While the bill originally proposed suspending driving privileges for underage vapers, that provision was removed, underscoring that teens are victims of this epidemic.

Ford and Accinelli spoke in support of the bill, and said they found lawmakers largely unaware of the issue.

“A lot of the people we talked to are grown adults who vapes are supposed to be marketed towards, but they had no idea what any of them were,” Accinelli said.

“They have no idea what’s going on,” Ford added, “and they’re making the laws about it.”