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A closer look at vaping and e-cigarettes on college campuses

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The usual walk from one class to another will have any student see an assortment of empty Juul pods, vape cartridges and possibly even a semi-functional vaping device. Within the past few years, vaping and e-cigarette use has been on the rise among college students.

E-cigarette corporations have launched campaigns telling students that vaping is the safer alternative to smoking cigarettes. The number of students who have begun to engage in this “safe” form of smoking has shot up tremendously. The percentage of high school students who have vaped nicotine at least once in the past month has roughly doubled since 2017, according to a survey from the University of Michigan.

RELATED: UA program addresses youth e-cigarette use

Students who were never into smoking cigarettes in the first place began to start vaping and using e-cigarettes. Interestingly enough, teens who start vaping are nearly three times more likely to go on to smoke cigarettes than their peers who don’t use any tobacco products, new research finds.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 2,172 reports of lung injuries connected to the use of vaping and e-cigarettes, as of Nov. 13, 2019. These reports are include to 49 states, the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories. In addition, 42 deaths have been confirmed in 24 states and the District of Columbia.

Although there has been heavy coverage on vaping and e-cigarette use in the news lately, many college students who partake in this activity say they are not bothered.

"Even with all the research concerning the issue of Juuling, I still Juul," said Phillip Levine, a finance student who has regularly used Juul products for a couple of years. He said vaping improves his mental state and helps him feel less anxious.

Juul pods contain a mixture of five ingredients — glycerol, propylene glycol, nicotine, food-grade flavoring and benzoic acid. Nicotine, also found in cigarettes, is an addictive chemical that activates the reward pathway in the brain.

Once someone vapes or uses an e-cigarette for the first time, the chemical nicotine causes a release of dopamine, the hormone responsible for feelings of being relaxed, buzzed and free of tension. However, over time, smoking becomes more of a habit and the individual ­­will build a tolerance to these effects.

Dr. Richard Wahl, a pediatrician, adolescent medicine physician and professor of pediatrics at the UA, has been practicing in Tucson for decades.

“Vaping and e-cigs as a growth industry has exploded in the last few years," Wahl said.

Wahl said he first became concerned when he read a study that found carcinogenic compounds in vaping products, including those with flavors marketed toward young users.

Wahl said he enjoys going into different vaping stores, tattoo parlors and smoke shops and asking the employees what he should know as a pediatrician who will potentially treat and diagnose a lot of their customers.

“It’s the best way to get a good education,” Wahl said. “When I went into the vaping shop, the person behind the counter said that he had noticed that when customers came in wanting to switch from cigarettes to e-cigs, the heaviest smokers would crank up the percentage of nicotine until it was significantly higher than what they were getting in tobacco products in order to get the same feel, the same burn from vaping.”

On the other side of the issue, some smoke shop owners report that they are fearful that the increased attention of the dangers of vaping and e-cigarette use will cause a dramatic decrease in business.

“We’ll probably lose a lot of sales because Tucson voted to raise the age of smoking from 18 to 21, so that’s actually happening in January,” said Eric Dickie, an employee at Maui Smoke Shop. “My boss told me he’s expecting to take a hit. Obviously, that’s going to happen.”

Regardless of the prevalence of vaping and e-cigarette use on college campuses, researchers, physicians and activists around the nation are working to impose bans and regulations on the amount of products sold.

The Seattle Public Schools filed a lawsuit against Juul because they believe they are advertising and designing products that deliberately target minors. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the U.S., filed a lawsuit against Juul, accusing them of endangering the health and lives of its students.

Recently, the CDC has indicated that vitamin E acetate has been implicated in the deaths associated with vaping and e-cigarette use.

According to the CDC website, “Vitamin E acetate usually does not cause harm when ingested as a vitamin supplement or applied to the skin. However, previous research suggests when vitamin E acetate is inhaled, it may interfere with normal lung functioning.” 

The current theory is that Vitamin E acetate acts as a “grease” which coats lungs and prevents them from working properly, according to the Washington Post.

President Trump has taken action on the vaping and e-cigarette usage increase by pushing to raise the legal age to purchase electronic cigarettes from 18 to 21. The Trump administration also anticipates the ban of all flavored vape products amid strong concern about its rising use among young people.

“We’re going to be coming out with a very important position on vaping,” Trump said, according to CNBC. “We have to take care of our kids, most importantly, so we’re going to have an age limit of 21 or so, so we’ll be coming out with something next week very important on vaping.”

RELATED: Smoke and Mirrors: A One-Year Review of the UA's Tobacco and Nicotine Policy

Recently, Juul announced it would pull its mint-flavored e-cigarettes from the market. This decision came after the research that showed that Juul’s mint flavor is the most popular flavor among high school students who vape.

“The typical age range [of people buying vape and e-cigarette products] is definitely on the younger side, 18-25,” Dickie said. “We do get some older people that Juul, maybe like 25-40, but not as much as the 18-25-year-olds.”


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