Vaping is now the most popular tobacco product among teens and young adults, thanks to $63 million in traditional and social media marketing last year by major e-cigarette companies.
U.S Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and 13 of his colleagues are asking the federal Food and Drug Administration to better regulate companies that sell vaping products and e-cigarettes clearly marketed at kids with names like “Cotton Candy” and “Cookies N Cream.”
Those e-cigarette companies are leveraging social media platforms, especially YouTube, to promote their products with videos in which vapers show a variety of tricks with hypnotic techno music pumping behind them. There are also instructional videos like one GLT ran across from a YouTuber who posts under the name Abby Vapes. Her profile says she has allergy-induced asthma and after quitting smoking in favor of vaping, she no longer has to use an inhaler.
“Hey vapers, Abby here with a video you’ve all been waiting for, 'How To Blow Smoke Rings.' Today we are vaping on Alpha Vapes’ 'The Dude' because I am obsessed with it and it is a Pineapple Peach and it is awesome!” she declares in a recent video.
If you think Abby’s videos and others like it on YouTube are not having an impact, consider Ian Hogenson, 16, a Bloomington High School student.
“It all kinda got started in freshman year. I’ll be going into junior year. When those big vape mods were a cool thing and all the smoke rings and whatnot. No nicotine. Kinda with the ohs. Nothing really harmful," Hogenson said.
Hogenson was enamored by the wafting smoke rings on those videos, but because of his self-admitted addictive tendencies he was sucked in for another reason.
“Now it’s moved on to the nicotine buzz, the Juuls and whatnot. It sparked popularity in sophomore year. It’s kinda like what I just use these days,” he admitted.
Hogenson is not alone.
“The use of e-cigarettes far exceeds what we’re seeing with cigarettes,” said Liz Hamilton, community program coordinator for Bloomington-based Chestnut Health Systems, which is well respected globally in the addiction treatment field.
Hamilton said the Illinois Youth Survey from this spring—an anonymous survey of eighth, 10th and 12th graders—showed 26 percent of Central Illinois high school seniors and 15 percent of sophomores are using e-cigarettes. That's double from just two years ago when the state first started tracking use.
Vaporizing devices come in all shapes and sizes, from custom-built, bong-like devices that can blow plumes of billowing vapor to the tiniest that look like a USB drive with the top-seller referred as a Juul—by far the most popular among teens. According to Hamilton, Juuls can deliver up to four times as much nicotine as a traditional cigarette, so addiction occurs faster.
She said research shows teens have no idea what they’re taking in.
"I’ve seen recent research that suggests 63 percent of the Juul users are unaware there is nicotine in their product,” said Hamilton.
In fact, that same recent youth survey showed only about a quarter of high school students perceived vaping as harmful.
Hogenson has become addicted to nicotine, but he said other kids don’t seem to know or care what they’re vaping.
“I don’t know if they know the true definition of becoming an addict, but that’s what a lot of these kids are becoming at my school," he said.
Hogenson wishes he never started vaping, and he has a message for his 14-year-old brother, Sam, and other younger students.
“You’re not missing out on a lot and the way your brain is developing—I sound like a mom—but it’s really not good to get into," he said.
Hogenson not only sounds like his mother, he sounds like the head of the Federal Drug Administration, who recently pointed out nicotine in vaping products can rewire an adolescent’s brain, leading to years of addiction. Chestnut's Hamilton said most addictions do have roots in the teen years. And she argues vaping is a gateway to other tobacco use.
“Teenagers are more likely, the research shows in some cases four times more likely, to walk into a cigarette habit," Hamilton said.
College student Kyle Fitzgerald, 23, already had a cigarette habit by age 15 growing up in suburban Chicago Heights. He found nicotine helped with stress and anxiety he felt in high school.
GLT met up with Fitzgerald in the basement of a downtown Bloomington vape shop.
“After about three months you’re addicted to cigarettes because you like that feeling and that buzz you kinda get in your head, so I was looking for something I could do where I wouldn’t get in trouble because my mom has the nose of a bloodhound," Fitzgerald said.
At age 16, Kyle found his answer in the form of a vape pen his stepfather began using to kick his addiction to chewing tobacco.
“I would use it and I was like, 'This is amazing. It’s awesome.' I want my own because he would always know when I use it. So I went out and I found one of my friends who was 18 and we went out to Indiana where it’s cheap and really accessible,” Fitzgerald said.
At age 17, Fitzgerald’s mom found his Sherlock Holmes-style vaporizing pipe and threw it out. His initial investment of $125 was gone, and he returned to cigarettes because he couldn’t continue investing in vaping supplies.
“I think it was like $45 for one of the smaller, 60-milliliter bottles. That would last me about a week and a half," he said.
Now, Fitzgerald is back to vaping because today’s smaller devices are cheaper. Online they go for as low as $10, including one cartridge of vape juice. And they’re easier to get.
Hogenson told GLT it has been easy to get supplies from what he describes as sketchy gas stations.
"It’s just kind of crazy how a 13-year-old kid can walk into a gas station and get whatever they want, no IDs or whatnot," Hogenson said.
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner says his agency hasn’t specifically tracked violations for sales of vaping products to anyone under 18, but he plans in the future to separate out tobacco and vaping-related violations due to what appears to be, in his words, “a growing problem.” To date, he’s not aware of any vaping sale violations.
Bloomington Police spokesperson Elias Mendiola said he didn’t have access to the information about tobacco or vaping sales violations readily available but added he’s not sure the metrics will show “anything significant.”
“It’s been a problem of people doing it right out in the open,” said Bloomington High School Assistant Principal Michael Shanley, who says because students are able to use such small devices, vaping violators are getting pretty bold about sneaking a hit.
“We’ve had a couple of instances of students doing it in the classroom. Mostly it’s been in bathrooms," he said. "It’s been reported students doing it in their cars in the parking lot. We have had instances of a kid doing it in the cafeteria."
Some schools nationwide have resorted to taking doors off bathroom stalls and banning USB devices because they look similar to Juuls. One enterprising company has developed a smart phone app that connects to a system to detect vapor from e-cigs.
Shanley said there are no such drastic measures at Bloomington High School yet. With a population of 1,500 students, the school saw 14 violations for tobacco this school year, and all were vaping-related compared to two disciplinary actions against students caught vaping last school year. Shanley admits administrators were caught off guard and use is growing.
“We’re seeing it across all demographics; every socioeconomic status. I’m seeing a lot of different types of kids get caught for this. It’s not just one group,” he said.
In Unit 5, Normal Community High School Principal Trevor Chapman says there were 28 tobacco violations among more than 2,150 students this school year, and all but two were vaping related. First offense results in an in-school suspension.
Chapman will be working this summer on an anti-vaping campaign with Hamilton from Chestnut and the BN Parents Campus Community Committee. Chapman believes it could include embedding more information into health classes, but he thinks it should also include a student-to-student strategy.
“Students certainly react much more positively and I would say tend to pay more attention when it’s their peers providing information to them, and so we are hopeful that as students assist us in this that the rest of our student population is more willing to listen," Chapman said.
Normal Community class of 2015 grad Benjamin Nielsen, now an Illinois Wesleyan University student, will be helping with the anti-vaping strategy. He’s involved in a program called “Always Unstoppable” and visits local high schools, championing individuality to give students confidence to make good choices.
In high school, Nielsen didn’t really have friends who vaped. Today, he knows many who do and says none are casual users. They are addicted.
“I have roommates who are waking up and the first thing they do before they go brush their teeth is they’re sucking in nicotine from their device that’s charging overnight and they’re doing it periodically throughout the day," Nielsen said.
Nielsen said a campaign to educate parents and teens will help, but he’s convinced kids won’t respond to messages about long-term health effects.
“A lot of these teenagers are just thinking about the now. They (anti-vaping advocates) have got to show short-term side effects or short-term disadvantages to vaping," he said.
Durbin said the tobacco industry has dusted off its old cigarette marketing plan to hook another generation which will be addicted to a new nicotine product that can be vaped.
McLean County Health Department Director Camille Rodriguez stood with Durbin during a recent local news conference on vaping. Before arriving here seven months ago, Rodriguez worked for the Wisconsin Public Health Department, heading up tobacco prevention. She worked on a campaign for parents called "Tobacco Is Changing."
For teenagers, Rodriguez says appealing to their vanity—in a way turning a mirror on bad visuals with vapers—might make an impact.
“Your teeth coloring and watery, itchy eyes can all be a side effect of using these products, and we know how our young people love to be on Instagram and do selfies so even if you used that sort of take you could perhaps make some headway,” she offered.Amanda Hogenson, Ian’s mom, thinks the school’s zero-tolerance policies are good and believes for the novice user, anti-vaping campaigns can help. For students like her son who are already addicted, her strategy has been to call him out on his use, encourage a better alternative such as exercise, and hope for the best.“They’re still going to do it and what I hope for mine is that it’s just a phase and that it will end with little to no side effects healthwise," she said.
Someone who says he’s in better health today because of vaping won’t debate the science but shares his personal, positive experience of switching from cigarettes to vaping.
Chris Hiatt, 30, a Normal Community West High School grad, started his Liquid Temptations Vaping Juice business four years ago at a time when he weighed nearly 300 pounds and felt like he was having a heart attack. He quit smoking, started vaping, and now Hiatt is a mixologist of sorts, creating vaping liquid for handheld mods and larger devices.
Hiatt has perfected concoctions with names such as Crunch Cake and Uproar—described as a grape frozen sorbet taste. He supplies several of the 13 Bloomington-Normal stores specifically selling tobacco and vaping products. He makes some juices without any nicotine and says he limits nicotine content to no more than 6 milligrams in a 60-milliliter bottle. (One cigarette has between 8 and 20 milligrams.)
Like many advocates, Hiatt comes from the position of reducing harm, but he is not ready to definitely claim vaping is healthier than smoking. However, Hiatt said he feels better.
“I was able to quit smoking. I was able to eat better, exercise. I run miles now where I couldn’t run a half-mile before, so it has definitely helped change my life for the better and many other people I know," Hiatt said.
Hiatt counts his mom, a smoker for decades, as one of his success stories.
However, federal regulators say there’s not enough evidence using e-cigarettes are an effective way to stop smoking and so far, no vaping or e-cigarette companies have applied for FDA approval for smoking cessation use.
Still, Chris Hiatt says his home base of The Smoker’s Den in downtown Bloomington sees many elderly patients who were longtime smokers who have now started vaping. After a few months, he says they come in unassisted instead of using walkers. But aren’t they just transferring one addiction to another?
“They come in and they will get an e-cig set up and they will vape it and once their nicotine is dropped from a higher level to a lower level, they’re done with it altogether," Hiatt said.
Hiatt understands the argument that vaping could be creating a new generation of addicts but he insists his business doesn’t market to kids and that his higher-price point, at $200 or more for a device, acts as a deterrent. Still, Hiatt who has two small children, would be OK with additional regulation.
“I’m OK with the labels not catering to children. We did our best to build a brand to where it is definitely adult-geared. We’re OK with the warning label being on the bottle even if it takes up promotional space for our company," he said.
Hiatt opposes raising the age for sale of vaping products to 21. He says it will only drive younger customers to the black market and to neighboring states.
Twenty-five Illinois cities, including Peoria and Chicago, have already restricted sale of tobacco and vaping products to adults 21 and older. A bill to impose the age limit statewide is on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk. If he signs, Illinois would join five other states that have already raised the age to 21.
The governor’s office says he’s reviewing the legislation along with 600 other bills. Rauner hasn’t made any public statements on the tobacco sales subject, but the Illinois Department of Revenue estimates the impact could reduce Illinois’ sales tax receipts by $41 to $48 million in the first year.
Meanwhile, Durbin continues to collect evidence of a growing addiction problem and he’s urging the FDA not to wait until 2020 to stop companies from hooking kids with flavored vaping juices and alluring marketing.
“While the jury is out on this conversion of combustible tobacco to vaping, as to whether that is a legitimate purpose for this product, the bigger commitment of the industry in hooking kids is unmatched,” Durbin declared while addressing Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar.
In a letter to school superintendents in May, Durbin asked superintendents to provide him with data about the extent of vaping in middle and high schools. He solicited suggestions for what Congress should do legislatively to prevent kids from becoming addicted.
Chestnut's Linda Hamilton said legislation restricting sales and marketing to children is needed, but reaching kids with the right message could really make an impact.
As she brainstormed aloud during an interview with GLT, Hamilton had an epiphany about what might work.
“Some sort of message that shows a Juul and some other kind of vaping devices that says ‘Pick me up; I will rule you’ and that is the last thing that a teenager who is trying to develop independence wants is for something else or someone else to control them."
City of Bloomington spokesperson Nora Dukowitz said no one has brought forward a proposal to raise the age to 21 for sale of all tobacco products, although she says there has been some informal discussion. Normal spokesperson Dan Irvin said there has been no discussion and no proposals brought to the town.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the person featured in the lead photo. It is Levi Lawrence, not Chris Hiatt.
You can also listen to GLT's full story on vaping.
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