Vaping Epidemic Growing Among Youth Warns Congresswoman

From left to right: Ossining High School Senior Nicole Calle, Pleasantville High School Student Ian McKensie, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, Pleasantville High School students Nya Pierre and Meaghan Ennis, and Alex Alvarez.

Local high school students sent a strong message to adults at the roundtable discussion “E-Cigarettes and Youth,” chaired by Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-Harrison) last week. Their message: Here’s what we’re doing to stop kids vaping, but we need your help.

The meeting was held at the Student Assistance Services Corp. in Tarrytown where some half a dozen teens spoke directly to Lowey and several high-profile experts from the Centers for Disease Control Office on Smoking and Health (OSH) as well as local physicians, educators, health advocates and youth directors. “There’s a lot of dangerous peer pressure on social media like Snapchat and Instagram,” said Meaghan Ennis of Pleasantville High School. “Adults don’t see a lot of the advertising for e-cigarettes because it’s hard to find. You have to dig for it and it shows that vaping is cool.”

CDC’s Dr. Brian King, an expert on youth tobacco and e-cigarettes, said from 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use among high schoolers rose 78 percent. “New products appeal to kids. Advertisements, new flavors and nicotine — that’s the tri-fecta of factors that lead to the initiation of the youth epidemic. Schools are ground zero where e-cigs are being used. We are seeing signs of nicotine dependency.”

Congresswoman Lowey has long spearheaded legislation addressing addiction to tobacco and e-cigarettes by youngsters. As Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, Lowey included an increase of $40 million for the Office on Smoking and Health in the House-passed spending bill for Fiscal Year 2020. The Senate is currently considering this legislation. “Every stakeholder here today is critical to combatting the use of e-cigarettes by kids, teens, and young adults,” said Lowey. “I am honored that members of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health traveled to the Lower Hudson Valley to collaborate with local physicians, educators, health advocates, youth directors, and students. This epidemic has taken hold in our community and ending it will be a team effort.”

Nicole Calle, a senior at Ossining High School told about attending a recent youth conference to learn how to sway teens away from vaping or smoking. “We learned how to practice drug free fun and bring that knowledge back to our schools,” said Calle, who explained that teens indulge in tobacco and e-cigarettes, raising their dopamine levels to feel good. “Those levels can go up naturally and you don’t have to smoke to feel good.” Calle was applauded when she said, “Teens are attracted to the vape flavors. We want to hold a flavor ban and get the youth on board with that. Kids are here to stand up for themselves and I hope you guys can help us get this epidemic out of our schools.” Lowey responded by saying, “This group has to continue to be vocal. We can’t give up. I’m so impassioned about this issue and I hope to get more money to help control this epidemic.”

Sherlita Amler, MD, Westchester County Commissioner of Health passed around several types of e-cigarettes. She talked about the Tobacco 21 law passed last year by Westchester County Executive George Latimer making it illegal to sell vaping products to anyone under age 21. “Many young people don’t realize that when they vape, they breathe in an aerosol that can contain harmful substances, including highly concentrated and addictive nicotine, volatile organic compounds that can cause cancer, heavy metals and diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease.”

Educators on tap included Joseph Spero, Principal of Walter Panas High School of the Lakeland school district and Dr. Joseph RiccaSuperintendent of Schools in White Plains. Spero said the Lakeland school district considers it an infraction if a student is caught smoking within 100 feet of the school. “Our goal is not to throw kids out of school for bad behavior. But you also have to send a message that certain behaviors are serious issues. It’s a balance.”

Pleasantville High School student Nya Pierre shared a typical scene in a boys’ bathroom at school. “It’s pretty sad when you see kids smoking in the stalls.” Pierre was joined by his fellow classmate Ian McKensie who told Lowey “a high school student could effectively help younger kids not to smoke. For younger kids that are starting to smoke cigarettes or are vaping, older teens are a good role model who could really listen.”

Calle told of a public service announcement (PSA) contest whose message was to show students how to resist peer pressure to try e-cigarettes. “The videos produced in our school showed a teen’s point of view and how to help their fellow students in many different situations including mental health issues. It would be great to bring this PSA contest to more schools.”

Lowey said the House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing a few weeks ago focused on Juul, the company producing flavored e-cigarettes that advertises directly to teens.

“This is not the first hearing on this. We need to look at this issue from every perspective. The saturation of e-cigarettes has turned back the clock on decades of success in deterring underage use of tobacco,” Lowey said.

Juul and other companies have marketed e-cigarettes without FDA approval for years but just a few weeks ago a judge ruled that e-cigarette makers have to submit applications for approval by the FDA by May, 2020. Late last year, the tobacco giant Altria invested $12.8 billion in Juul. Altria’s 35 percent stake in Juul is valued at $38 billion.

When the discussion was over, Nicole Calle said, “This was a great opportunity to bring ideas to adults who were attentive. They were listening and took us seriously. We hope they will help us make a change.”