Purple cheesecake: It’s one of the many unique smells that cloud crowded high school hallways and bathrooms — and one local 15-year-old’s favorite flavor of “juice” to put in his e-cigarette.
John started vaping, or using the flavored e-cigarettes in March. He now uses his e-cigarette every day.
“I like the nicotine high and I like to look at the smoke,” he said. “It’s trippy.”
Battery-operated, tobacco-free, water vapor-based cigarettes were first introduced in 2003. They have risen in popularity since — especially among youth, regardless of the fact that buying e-cigarettes is illegal for teenagers and the health effects of the “vape pens” are still widely unknown.
Because buying e-cigs is illegal for teens under 18, Generation Next is not using the real names of teens who agreed to discuss vaping.
In New Mexico, 51.1 percent of teens said they had used an “e-cig,” according to the state’s 2017 Youth Risk and Resiliency Report on teen behavior. That’s a bit higher than the 42.2 percent of teens across the country who said the same thing, according to the report. Two percent, like John, reported vaping every day.
The nicotine that is found in most e-cigarettes, although substantially less than what is found in a traditional cigarette, is why it remains illegal for people younger than 18 to buy them in New Mexico and much of the country.
However, whether it be through fake IDs, laid-back security at some vape shops or favors from older friends, teens all over the nation are part of the vaping trend. The secret packs of rolling paper-wrapped cigarettes that may have been found in some teenagers’ backpacks 50 years ago are being replaced by glass, plastic and aluminum vape pens.
Their rise has been quick.
According to the National Center for Health Research, “the percentage of teenagers who have tried e-cigarettes almost quadrupled over just four years.” In 2011, the center reported just 5 percent of teens using e-cigs. In 2017, that number had risen to 42.2 percent.
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that youth in the United States are more likely to vape than adults. In 2016, the CDC reported, 11.3 percent of high-schoolers smoked e-cigs, compared to 3.2 percent of adults.
Brenna Valencia, a co-owner of “I-Vape Clouds” E-Cigarettes and Accessories Shop on Cerrillos Road, sees vaping as a fad.
“They see everybody vaping; they want to vape,” she said. “I mean, back in the day when everybody was smoking cigarettes, you saw 12-year-olds smoking cigarettes.”
Sarah, a Santa Fe teen, said her friends played a role in her experience with vaping.
“I first did it a summer ago and I hated it,” she said. Then she went to a party where her friends were doing it. She tried again and got “domed,” or felt the high associated with inhaling large quantities of nicotine.
That was the turning point for Sarah.
“I liked the feeling,” she said.
Valencia said that she and her co-workers have problems with underage youth trying to purchase their products.
“Occasionally we get a couple [underage teens] that come in, that say, you know, ‘Well, my birthday’s tomorrow’ or ‘Can you cut me a break?’ ” she said. “There’s just a ‘no tolerance for it,’ so we ask them to leave.”
According to Valencia, I-Vape Clouds prevents illegal purchases by checking IDs of everyone in the store. Valencia said the store’s products are not for kids and she wouldn’t recommend their use to anyone who isn’t trying to quit smoking cigarettes.
She does think that 18 is an appropriate age to legally purchase vaping products.
“There’s a lot of controversy about it. … But I feel like when you turn 18, you’re an adult, and it’s your decision if you want to vape or not,” Valencia said.
Scientists and researchers warn that negative effects can come with any use of nicotine — no matter how minimal — especially for developing youth.
“Using nicotine in adolescence can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood, and impulse control,” according to a 2016 CDC report on e-cigarette usage. “Each time a new memory is created or a new skill is learned, stronger connections — or synapses — are built between brain cells. … Nicotine changes the way these synapses are formed.”
In addition, some worry vaping could lead to smoking, and the National Center for Health Research says that the earlier youth start smoking, the more likely it is they’ll get hooked. The center also reports that “there are no long-term studies to back up claims that the vapor from e-cigarettes is less harmful than conventional smoke” and that some of the e-cig ingredients could damage users’ lungs in the long run.
“E-cigarette aerosol generally contains fewer toxic chemicals than the deadly mix of 7,000 chemicals in smoke from regular cigarettes,” the agency’s report says. “However, e-cigarette aerosol is not harmless. It can contain harmful and potentially harmful substances, including nicotine, heavy metals like lead, volatile organic compounds, and cancer-causing agents.”
And some teens don’t even know what they’re smoking. A 2016 report done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens found more than half of teens think e-cigs are flavoring alone. More than 13 percent of teens said they didn’t know what the ingredients were. And only 13.2 percent knew there was nicotine in e-cigs.
“E-cigarettes, Juuls, and other similar products have not been around long enough to determine if they are harmful to users in the long run,” the National Center for Health Research said. “Unfortunately, many people, including teenagers, are under the impression that e-cigarettes are safe or that they are effective in helping people quit smoking regular cigarettes. Neither of these assumptions has yet been proven.”
With e-cigarettes having become such a staple in teenage life, it’s hard to predict the impact their use could have on the next generation. The medical world is still torn about the risks and benefits.
Sarah decided that the potential long-term impacts could outweigh the temporary benefits. She has decided to quit.
“I would recommend not vaping, as I noticed a real difference in my voice … after I’ve been doing it for a while,” Sarah said. “I’m stopping to take care of myself.”
Ivy St. Clair is a sophomore at Santa Fe High School. Contact her at email@example.com.
Wyatte Grantham-Philips, a 2018 Santa Fe High School graduate, is a freshman at Northwestern University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.