An e-cigarette is a hand-held, battery-powered vaporizer that heats liquid to form aerosol substances that are inhaled. A variety of substances, including illicit drugs, may be “vaped” in e-cigarettes, but the most common e-cigarette vapor ingredient is nicotine, which is highly addictive.
Among adolescents, e-cigarettes constitute a public health epidemic, according to the U.S. Surgeon General who urges protecting “our children from a lifetime of nicotine addiction and associated health risks by immediately addressing the epidemic of youth e-cigarette use.”
According to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey (released by the FDA and the CDC), more than five million youth reported having used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days and nearly one million reported daily use. While cigarette smoking is at an all-time low among high school students, increases in e-cigarette use have reversed progress made in the decline of overall youth tobacco use.
“In context, that’s about a three million (e-cigarette) jump from 2017. (The numbers) more than doubled in two years,” said Adam Zimmerman, a smoke-free advocate and Rockville resident.
“From a percentage standpoint, we know that more than one in four high school students and more than one in 10 middle school students used e-cigarettes in 2019.”
For non-smokers and parents, e-cigarettes can be hard to spot if you don’t know what to look for. They look like USB/thumb drives, highlighters, pens and lipsticks. They are innocuous and look like the normal stuff teenagers carry in their school backpacks.
Montgomery County Public School teachers, administrators, school resource officers and others are working to keep vaping off campus, but the challenge is great. “The vape pens are so discrete and small, there is no good way of tracking them’” said MCPS Public Information Officer Derek Turner.
“We know how many students are caught with vape pens. What we don’t know is how many students are bringing vape pens to school.”
Despite the difficulty, Turner said the school system seeks to support students through the challenges they face in remaining drug free.
According to Cara Grant, Ed.D. and supervisor, health and physical education at MCPS, the school system works in a multitude of ways, including through the curriculum at every grade level, to address alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, with the recent addition of vaping, “juuling” and e-cigarette information.
Travis Gayles, M.D., is chief of public health services in Montgomery County. In 2019, Gayles’ office released a public health alert with information about the risk of vaping and the precipitous rise in numbers of people vaping, both adults and adolescents. In adolescents, Gayles is concerned about the especially harmful effects of nicotine on the developing brain’s frontal lobe. The public health alert was issued by his office soon after five teenagers—three at one high school and two at another (two events separated by several weeks)—lost consciousness after vaping and had to be revived with emergency medical treatment.
Vape products containing nicotine are harmful, said Gayles, but “if you are just vaping and smoking nicotine, you are not supposed to lose consciousness, so the concern was that students had gained access to substances laced with an opioid or some other synthetic material that may be even more harmful than nicotine.”
Four legislative initiatives aimed at reducing access to e-cigarettes will be voted on by the Montgomery County Council in the next few weeks. The legislation, including a text zoning amendment, is supported by County Executive Marc Elrich.
The package is part of a multi-faceted effort by the County Council, Montgomery County Public Schools, the county health department, citizen groups and others to end the vaping epidemic among adolescents, and to prevent the further spread of nicotine addiction and vape-related lung illnesses.
“This is a public health emergency,” said County Councilmember Gabe Albornoz who chairs the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee.
One legislative measure would prohibit manufacturers of e-cigarettes from distributing to retail stores within a half-mile of a middle or high school. (Lead sponsors are Councilmembers Albornoz and Craig Rice, and cosponsors include all other councilmembers).
In keeping with recently passed state law, one measure would prohibit distributing tobacco products to most persons in the county under 21, and limit possession of tobacco products and e-cigarettes by people under 21. (Lead sponsors are Councilmembers Albornoz and Tom Hucker.)
“One bill deals with flavored vaping products, and we do feel that flavors are one of the reasons so many kids are getting hooked on these products in the first place,” said Albornoz. The legislation prohibits retailers from selling flavored vaping products within a mile of parks, libraries and all schools. (Lead sponsors are Councilmembers Albornoz and Hans Riemer with Hucker as cosponsor.)
The most widely used brand of e-cigarette is Juul with a 72 percent market share in September 2018. In December 2018, Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris) purchased a 35 percent interest in Juul.
Juul pods contain nicotine salts from leaf tobacco. Juul pods are “vaped” using Juul devices that look like the USB/thumb drives. The batteries in Juul devices recharge on USB ports. Currently, two gas stations just across the street from Quince Orchard High School sell e-cigarettes and paraphernalia, including Juul devices and pods, which would be banned by the new legislative measures, if they pass, because of the gas stations’ proximity to local schools. So far, it appears public support for the legislation is solid. “The correspondence is three-to-one in favor of the legislation,” said Albornoz.
Look for an MCPS anti-vaping symposium to be held on March 28. You can find more information at www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/studentservices/wellbeing/index-new.aspx.