Teen vaping popularity keeps growing, parents and schools struggle to curb trend

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The dangers of e-cigarette use by teens is a health concern for some local school administrators as they see more kids taking up the habit. The head of the FDA has called e-cigarettes "wildly popular with kids."

While some adults credit flavored e-cigarettes for getting them off traditional cigarettes, and even with weight loss, it seems some teens are taking up the habit because they think it's the cool thing to do.

E-cigarette products, like JUUL, have become increasingly popular among teens. They are sleek, sweet and socially acceptable.

In Chicago, you can't buy the e-cigarette products unless you're over 21.

Frank Rex, the owner of Let's All Vape, said the Chicago age restrictions cut into his business, but not the business of the e-cigarette industry.

"That doesn't stop them at all, not one bit," he said.

Teens in the city and suburbs are vaping, even in school.

"Definitely the bathroom they like to call the JUUL room, like 'Why are there toilets in the JUUL room,'" one teen said.

"Students using it in a bathroom or even in a study hall or classroom, because you can hide the device so easily," said Bill Walsh, Hinsdale Central High School.

"They do it, like, zeroing it. They just hold it in until nothing comes out," one student said.

"We have stories that students are vaping in our class," said Arwen Pokorny Lyp, principal at Hinsdale South High School.

Principals at Hinsdale Central and South high schools want tougher laws to dissuade teen vapers. Currently there is no ordinance against minors possessing e-cigarette products in Hinsdale or Darien. At the current time the worst punishment is a detention and confiscation of vape items, which creates a vivid show-and-tell for teachers.

"They were shocked, they just said 'Oh my god, that looks like a portable mouse, that looks like a phone charger, that looks like a USB device,'" Lyp said. "We know there are adverse effects, but because it's newer and studies have been done on how it affects the adolescent brain specifically, we don't know."

"Just because it may be safer than traditional cigarette use, doesn't mean it's safe," said Dr. Anita Chandra, pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Chandra said most of her adolescent patients know all about vaping.

"It gives you a little buzz for a couple of seconds, then it goes away," a teen said.

"After like two or three hits you feel kind of calm," said another teen.

"Nicotine is highly addictive," Chandra said. "It's pulling in a population of adolescents that knew regular cigarettes were bad for them, but they end up just addicted."

A spokeswoman for JUUL Labs insists their products are for adults.

"An individual who has not previously used nicotine products should not start, particularly youth. We encourage parents to talk with their children about the dangers of nicotine," the spokeswoman said in her response.

Chandra urges caution in a public service announcement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"Some of the actual products, like the glycerol that makes the vape, actually can metabolize to things that can be dangerous, such as formaldehyde, which we know is toxic to the cells," she said.

Regarding JUUL products, their spokeswoman said, "While formaldehyde and diacetyl are byproducts of the safe consumption of JUULs, testing by JUUL has shown that the amounts are undetectable or below the level of quantification."

As some adults work to educate parents, teachers and lawmakers, the teens that spoke with ABC7 said what they hear is from their peers.

"Like, everyone does it, and they think it's so cool and all, and I feel like that's the reason why everyone does it," one teen said.

Some schools are experimenting with ways to curb the behavior. Barrington High School is testing a vape detector, and New Trier High School is considering options with a special summer task force devoted to the issue.

For parents looking for signs of vaping, some giveaways are a sweet smell in the air and on your child's clothes, a persistent cough, and new pieces of technology that don't look quite the same, like an odd-looking thumb drive or charger.
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