“It’s so easy that everyone’s just like, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Obviously everyone knows the underlying harms of vaping. But when it’s so easy…,” trails off a senior LHS girl who vapes over the weekends. In the past few months, the issue of vaping has become an unfortunately comical game of cat and mouse. Longmeadow Health Director, Mrs. Beverly Hirschhorn says, locally “we’ve banned all flavored [tobacco] products of any kind.” But the reality is, even as advocates for nicotine addiction prevention champion the new regulations, students say getting nicotine has not become harder due to the loopholes. “[I] wish it wasn’t so easy cause then I would just stop,” says the senior girl. “I just don’t get carded,” adds another female classmate.
“I would try to quit but its [extremely] hard. Like really I will try. I probably will not be successful.”–LHS Senior Boy
“It’s so easy [to get]. If it wasn’t so easy, I wouldn’t go searching [for nicotine].”-LHS Senior Girl
For the first few years, when vaping became prevalent in late 2016, the worst effect of the epidemic was widely believed to be the return to battling teen nicotine addiction. This was after the success story that daily nicotine use decreased from about 35% of 12th graders in 1998 to less than 10% in 2016. Late in 2019, cases of serious respiratory illnesses started popping up around the nation, many correlated to vaping. These cases of e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) forced state and federal legislators to quickly adopt legislation to curb teen vaping. Prior to this, vaping products were largely unregulated. “The federal government [got] caught with its pants down,” says Substance Abuse Coordinator at LHS, Mrs. Shelly Warren. Early in 2020, the federal government scrambled to pass a policy that banned flavored nicotine pods (excluding methanol and tobacco flavor). Madison Copeland, a senior at LHS and part of CLOSE Community’s delegation to the Community Anti-Drug Coalition (CADCA) national conference in DC, while supportive of the legislation, regards this change as being too late, “over 50 people died and over 3000 have been injured.” Mrs. Warren says, “these products [ended] up having these ingredients that created this health crisis. Now they have to spend all this money through the CDC trying to manage a health crisis that’s affecting mostly young people. If they had exerted their regulatory power beforehand, you can argue it wouldn’t have even happened.”
“I don’t want to say I’m addicted. I guess [I am]. I hate having to say that. I wish I didn’t vape.”-LHS Senior Girl
Crucially though, the federal legislation avoided regulating disposables. These are one time use vapes which don’t have a replaceable liquid cartridge like a Juul does. In Massachusetts these were made illegal even before the federal legislation though. On December 11th, 2019, the Massachusetts Public Health Council approved new regulations that restrict the sale of nicotine vaping, flavored vaping, and tobacco products. This action followed the Legislature passing and Governor Charlie Baker signing into law An Act Modernizing Tobacco Control. This act immediately banned flavored e-cigarettes of any kind (including disposables) sold in convenience stores, and as of June 1st will add a 75% excise tax on top of the 6.25% sales tax on all nicotine products.
However, none of this legislation has been significantly effective. Due to Longmeadow’s border with Connecticut, a state that does not regulate vaping products, students are now buying products there. Because of the federal flavor ban on pods, what students are using has changed. “People want the flavors and the disposable vapes have those flavors,” says a senior boy who smokes cigarettes and vapes. “Most people with disposables used to have Juuls (a pod based device),” says a senior girl.
As a result of the legislation, some LHS students use the proximity to Connecticut to sell vapes to students in towns farther away from the border. “I have a friend who lives in Worcester so she can’t get any [vapes]. I get them for her and then bring them to her when I see her,” says the previous senior girl. Vape businesses in Connecticut have taken advantage of Massachusetts’s bans too. “This is what I’m up against,” says Mrs. Hirschhorn, displaying a vape shop ad she cut out of a recent issue of The Reminder. It reads, “Minutes from Mass! Right over the line! 1 MILE from The Bottle Shop & Armata’s. Get your Juul on!”
In fighting the youth vaping epidemic, without harsher federal regulation, Mrs. Hirschhorn says, “I think our best effort is to work through the educational format.” She cites the work that has been done through our local coalition CLOSE Community but also believes educating students earlier is necessary. “I didn’t learn about this in elementary school and middle school. I [wasn’t] exposed to it until eighth grade and high school during health class. I think if I had been more informed about it when I was younger, I would have never started [vaping and] I would not be using it today,” says a senior girl, “I think it’s really good that they are starting to [educate earlier], because my sister’s in [elementary school] and she’s learning about it.” Mrs. Meaghan Roy, a Health teacher at LHS, emphasizes the need for vaping education at a younger age. “All these little kids [with] their drive to fit in, be cool, and be popular is so intense, they can show off with this thing that has this high level of nicotine that’s so addicting and they’re reinforcing that addiction center in their brain,” she says. Mrs. Hirschhorn, Mrs. Roy, and Mrs. Warren all make note that drugs are a lot more addictive after puberty and before adulthood due to a process known as pruning where the brain cleans up information and receptors it doesn’t need. As a result, teens are also more likely to get addicted to other substances because those receptors are now there.
A senior boy explains that some teens vape to rebell and because “yeah it’s dangerous, but everyone does it, so why wouldn’t I try it?” Madison Copeland disputes this saying, “everyone does it’ is very inaccurate and I think that’s just the perception people have because they’re more likely to pay attention to people who are doing it than people who are not.” Senior Lilly Tabb, also a CADCA delegate from LHS, highlights that some people who use nicotine will have social circles that are composed of users and as such will contribute to a skewed perception. Mr. Paul McNeil, the CLOSE Community Coalition Program Director says, “when you change perceptions you start to change behaviours.” According to Mr. McNeil perception of peer use is “supposed to matter” but it hasn’t yet shown correlation at LHS (although he cautions against identifying trends in less than seven year old data). Perception of peer vaping use has been on the rise, but is not in line with actual use rates. Student vaping is not increasing as dramatically as peer perceptions of use over the last few years. Instead, perceptions of risk and disapproval have for now seem to have been driving use down, albeit negligibly. Mrs. Roy comments that sometimes no amount of education can change a person’s “personality type,” and that there can be many other societal and familial factors that contribute to the use of nicotine.
Next year at LHS, there will be a new wellness program piloted where the third quarter of gym class during junior year will be dedicated to health. Mrs. Roy describes this as being a much more project based curriculum where students will be reinforcing and working with the information they learned freshman year. But vaping education should go beyond the health class according to Mrs. Roy, who also encourages doing projects throughout the departments like a “research project in an English class on these types of issues. It’s just getting the information in different ways and thinking about it differently.” Ultimately, Mr. McNeil says, “you can’t educate yourself out of a public health crisis.” Mr. McNeil, Mrs. Hirschhorn, Mrs. Roy, and Mrs. Warren all agree the best permanent solution is stricter regulation.
“Everything should be harder to get, because if it wasn’t so easy to get stuff, no one would be using it and it would never have been this big of a problem,” says a senior girl, “Where I get stuff, they just sell to anyone and the people there make friends with underage people. My boyfriend is friends with the guy. They have each other’s number. It’s weird.” Another senior girl comments, “I feel like you’re always gonna find loopholes.” To combat this Mrs. Hirschhorn encourages creating more fines, “a $1,000 fine talks,” she says and brings up the example of Armatas, a Longmeadow grocery store that had its license to sell tobacco revoked after selling to underage people a few times. Mrs. Roy says, “regulations do make it harder for people to get things, but it doesn’t get away from it.” She brings up the example of alcohol, “if it wasn’t illegal imagine how much more would happen. There’s no real cure. There are just ways to reduce it and you have to try to tackle it from as many angles as possible.”
For students seeking immediate help for either themselves or their friends, Mrs. Warren says she’s always available. “Anybody who talks to me, it’s confidential and I am not allowed to communicate it with any other staff in the building, including administration. I’m not even allowed to talk to parents. So there is no penalty that comes to anybody who talks to me,” she says. Mrs. Roy explains that what they will do is help the student find the motivation to quit. An example of this would be a pro and cons list. The Act Modernizing Tobacco control is also supposed to make nicotine patches and gums more available for students looking to quit, according to Mrs. Warren.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve been fooled again with electronic cigarettes,” says Madison Copeland, ”I don’t agree that nicotine will always be in our society. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”