According to the CDC, 48 people have died from vaping and over 2,000 people have been hospitalized for vaping-related sickness as of December 2019. (Celine Huang)
According to the CDC, 48 people have died from vaping and over 2,000 people have been hospitalized for vaping-related sickness as of December 2019.

Celine Huang

How vaping trends threaten teen health

January 13, 2020

Additional reporting by Kennedy Black

*The names of the students interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their privacy. The students are all in high school or college and may or may not be affiliated with St. John’s.

Courtney was in seventh grade the first time she vaped. 

Her best friend at the time came to her house for their regular weekend sleepover. Courtney knew that her friend was bringing a Juul—she had gotten it from one of her other friends, and had been talking about it the day before she came over. The two girls were sitting together on Courtney’s bed when Courtney eagerly asked to see it. 

Her best friend pulled out the device and told Courtney that it was completely safe, falsely claiming that there was no nicotine in the cartridge. 

“I didn’t even know what nicotine was,” Courtney said.

Two years later, Courtney was vaping non-stop: at school, at home, in the bathroom, whenever she got the chance. She was inhaling one full pod a day, the equivalent of smoking an entire pack of cigarettes. 

By the time she was a sophomore, she developed breathing problems.  

“I would take a deep breath, but it wouldn’t go through,” she said. “It was like air was stuck in my throat.”

Just one year ago, only minimal research existed on the long-term effects of vaping. But Courtney didn’t have to wait for any more clinical studies—she was so frightened about her health that she quit “cold turkey” on Jan. 11, 2019. 

In the long 11 months since she quit, Courtney has persevered through the difficult physical and emotional withdrawal process, but the terrifying consequences of vaping still follow her. 

“Everytime my lungs hurt,” she said. “I’m like, f—, I’m dying.”

Medical consequences

Courtney’s fears about her health are well-founded. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s extensive report on vaping, as of December, 48 people have died from vaping and over 2,000 people have been hospitalized for vaping-related sickness. The CDC refers to such vaping illnesses as EVALI, short for “E-cigarette, or Vaping Product Use Associated Lung Injury.” 

As a pediatric radiologist and Medical Director at St. John’s, Scott Dorfman has seen several cases of vaping-related lung damage. He said that the total number of young people suffering from vaping illness may be much higher than reported. 

Over 2,000 people in the US have been hospitalized due to vaping. (Alice Xu)

Symptoms of EVALI appears similar to pneumonia since both conditions present abnormal chest x-rays as well as a cough and a fever. There is no single test that allows doctors to distinguish one condition from the other, making it more complicated to diagnose. 

“There are many people who probably have this vaping-related disease who are not being diagnosed that way,” Dorfman said. 

As vaping deaths increase drastically, schools have taken a more stringent stance against electronic cigarettes, including Texas A&M University, which banned vaping on “every inch” of their campus in 2019. 

Teresa, a 23-year-old who attended Texas A&M for two years, now takes classes at the University of Houston. She bought her first Juul while at A&M and still uses it at UH. She is not concerned about any repercussions because the university policy that bans e-cigarettes is seldom taken seriously. 

“People still do it on campus,” Teresa said. “You wouldn’t get kicked out for it.”

Peer pressure

Unlike Courtney, Teresa doesn’t worry about her health. 

“The death thing doesn’t freak me out as much,” she said, “but who knows? In 30 years, we could all be dead because of the Juul.”

After discovering the temporary high that nicotine provides, she continues to use the device sporadically and considers vaping “fun.” When she heard about the rising mortality rate, Teresa briefly grew nervous, but the fear soon passed. 

“I do have that mentality that I’m invincible—that I can do whatever—and it’s not going to affect me,” Teresa said.

File:Juul flavour multipack (cropped).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Some teenagers are driven to vape by peer pressure and the desire to fit in. (Courtesy Image)

Because she is 23 years old, Teresa can vape legally. Many others who harbor the same mindset are underage.

Mikayla, who is 18, has been vaping for nearly two years and doesn’t think she will develop illnesses anytime soon. She first started vaping as a freshman because most of her friends were also doing it. At first, she borrowed e-cigarettes from her friends and older brothers before buying her own Juul sophomore year.  

“It’s okay for me to do it because it’s something that I enjoy,” Mikalya said. “It’s my own personal decision, and I don’t care if people criticize me for it. It’s none of their business.”

Mikayla has observed many young people beginning to vape. These adolescents, some of them barely out of elementary school, often have a warped perspective of the dangers of vaping.

“If their older sibling has one, or their older sibling’s friend has one, they think it’s harmless,” Mikayla said. 

Other students vape due to peer pressure.

Reagan, a high school sophomore, began vaping in eighth grade. Using e-cigarettes was incredibly prevalent at her middle school, and she began to do so in order to fit in.   

Mikayla and Teresa said that vaping, like underage drinking, is a way for high schoolers to engage in teenage rebellion. 

“It’s part of being young,” Mikayla said. “There’s some kind of thrill in knowing you’re doing something you’re not supposed to.”

The perceived coolness of vaping is not limited to simple teenage rebellion. Social media and online culture have furthered the societal appeal and attractiveness of e-cigarettes. Vaping is so prevalent online that it appears normal. 

Online culture

Vaping is pervasive throughout social media. From TikTok to Instagram, it is impossible to escape e-cigarette culture, a phenomenon that takes form through comedic videos, memes and even dance trends.

Fareen Dhuka
Social media platforms often contain posts relating to vaping or e-cigarettes.

When scrolling through TikTok, many videos feature some type of vaping device, whether it be a Juul or brightly colored puff bars, a disposable form of e-cigarette. TikTok is a platform centered on short dance videos or comedy trends, in which users film themselves performing a new dance or showcasing a certain aspect of their lives in a comedic manner. These seemingly innocent videos often incorporate vaping as a part of the trends.

These trends are dangerous, as they present vaping as normal, commonplace and even cool. One trend features a choreographed dance that starts with a vaping trick called “ghosting.” The other involves users showcasing how many puff bars or Juul pods they have gone through as a coughing track plays in the background. The popular hashtag “juulgang” has over 347 million views, meaning that the majority of TikTok’s 500 million users are viewing videos that in some way showcase vaping products.

“[Social media content] can definitely influence people,” Courtney said. “I feel like it’s more attractive in a way to people, if it’s all over the media.” 

On both Instagram and TikTok, teens and adults alike have taken to painting and decorating their vapes. Instagram in particular has many comedic pictures and memes that use Juuling and nicotine addiction as the element of relatable humor.   

“If you’re 14 or 15, then you might want to be cool,” Teresa said. “[My little step-sister] watches TikTok and Instagrams and just thinks [vaping is] cool and rebellious.”

I didn’t even know what a Juul looked like until I saw it on someone’s Snapchat.”

— Mikayla

Snapchat is another social media platform that has a problematic vaping culture. Because of the rising vaping trend, many teens flash their Juuls on their private stories to appear cool. 

“I didn’t even know what a Juul looked like until I saw it on someone’s Snapchat,” Mikayla said.    

The online culture surrounding e-cigarettes makes quitting more difficult since users are rewarded with positive messages on vaping. The ways in which these apps showcase nicotine addiction issues minimizes the danger and reality of the problem, and instead presents it as relatable and funny. 

Despite all the online positive reinforcement, some, including Courtney, have managed to quit.

Taking the last hit

When Courtney began to have trouble breathing in January, she decided to perform an experiment: she stopped vaping for a day and noticed marginal improvement. The breathing problems quickly returned when she returned to her regular usage the next day. 

When Courtney quit completely, the experiment confirmed her fears. Throughout the process, Courtney experienced both physical and emotional symptoms of withdrawal, including a fever that lasted for two weeks. 

“I felt sick,” Courtney said. “I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, I was nauseous. I’d wake up feeling awful.” 

Her physical withdrawal symptoms lasted around two weeks, but she experienced emotional withdrawals for nearly a month afterwards. She became angry incredibly easily and burst into tears at the smallest things, including if her dog walked out of her room.

“[I didn’t give in because] I didn’t want to die,” Courtney said. “I am 15 years old. I didn’t want to die at 30, or of lung cancer.”

Courtney’s fear supplied her with the willpower it took to quit using nicotine. For other users, however, the drug’s effects are too difficult to give up. 

I didn’t want to die. I am 15 years old. I didn’t want to die at 30, or of lung cancer.”

— Courtney

“It’s really hard to stop,” Dorfman said. “Millions of people have gotten addicted to nicotine, and even if they know it’s bad for them, even if they want to stop, it’s not a matter of just throwing it away.”

Others have quit because of the expense. A pack of four pods costs around $20, causing some, including Courtney, to spend up to $40 a week. For some, this can be a barrier to continue vaping.

“It costs too much and doesn’t do enough,” Reagan said. “It just felt like a waste of time.”

Whether it be due to an extreme medical issue or a simple matter of cost, there are teenagers who have decided to quit vaping. Using Juuls and other forms of e-cigarettes is still generally seen as trendy, but there is hope that the news about vaping-related deaths will contribute to a rising group of teens who view vaping for what it is—a dangerous and addictive practice. 

Courtney is now one of these people.

“Even though people will say Juuls aren’t as bad as cigarettes,” Courtney said, “you’re not supposed to put things in your lungs that aren’t supposed to go in there.”

About the Contributors
Photo of Julia Smith
Julia Smith, Assignments Editor

Julia is a senior, and this is her second year on The Review.

Photo of Celine Huang
Celine Huang, Design Editor

Celine is a junior, and this is her third year on The Review.

Photo of Alice Xu
Alice Xu, Staff Writer

Alice is a freshman, and this is her first year on The Review.

Photo of Fareen Dhuka
Fareen Dhuka, Online Editor-in-Chief

Fareen Dhuka is a senior, and this is her fourth year on The Review.

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