PAWCATUCK — It’s tiny, about the size of a thumb drive, but a JUUL-brand e-cigarette contains a liquid with about the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
It's a delivery device that creates a vapor inhaled or “vaped” by the user. The e-cigarette come in a wide variety of flavors and colors; they’re easy to conceal and they’re rechargeable on a computer, just like a thumb drive.
“Juuls are marketed to kids our age and your age because if companies can get us to use these devices, we’re going to be using them for our whole lives if we get addicted,” Emma Small, a senior at Stonington High School, told students at an assembly at Pawcatuck Middle School on Monday.
In a presentation tailored for her audience, Small, along with seniors Jessica Detwiler and Keegan Donohue, talked frankly about the health hazards of vaping. The three young women are members of the high school’s Healthy Decisions Council, a group formed in the fall to combat the rising amount of vaping in the community.
The health hazards include throat irritation, asthma and popcorn lung, which damages the lungs, or bronchiolitis obliterans, which damages the lungs’ smallest airways and can cause coughing and shortness of breath. Besides nicotine, vaping e-liquid contains chemicals such as nicotine, glycerol, propylene glycol, benzoic acid, and flavorants.
“There are so many reasons to not start vaping,” Donohue said. “Why would you knowingly want to hurt your body, anyway? It’s important to listen to our doctors because they want to protect us, help us stay safe and not hurt our bodies.”
The best strategy for dealing with vaping is never to begin, Detwiler told the middle schoolers.
“For people who become addicted to nicotine, it’s not an easy ride. They have to develop a support system to combat this addiction and find people to support them through their bad decisions,” she said. “The best way to avoid becoming addicted at all is to not hop on the nicotine and vaping bandwagon and just say no if someone asks you if you’d like to use."
But saying no isn’t easy.
“That’s why the Healthy Decisions Council made up a slogan, “I’m Good, I Got Gum,” to help kids with a tactic to avoid vaping,” said Detwiler.
Small said gum and the electronic cigarettes have similarities — they come in a wide variety of flavors and packaging, but gum is healthy and fun whereas nicotine is dangerous and addictive.
The three seniors also showed a video made by the council showing skits in which students were offered a “puff” and how they said no.
Neal Curland, assistant principal of Stonington High School, also spoke to the middle schoolers about having a "rejection strategy" ready if they face peer pressure to vape.
Besides the “gum” strategy, students could say they had a ballgame that day or that the vapor bothers their lungs, he said.
“Or you could say, 'I don’t want to get in trouble,’” Curland said. “But you’ve got to have a strategy ready for that peer pressure if that time ever comes and ‘I’m good I’ve got gum’ is one way to do it.”
Curland said the federal Federal Food and Drug Administration has deemed vaping an epidemic, with more than 2 million youth and student users in the United States. Vaping is legal over age 18 but underage students are still able to get the devices.
Gum-chewing is not allowed in school but students can keep a pack of gum with them as a rejection strategy, he said.
The entire presentation took 10 minutes and students received a pack of gum as they left the school cafeteria.
Afterward, Donohue said it was important to present the information to middle school students as a preventive measure. “Most of them haven’t even heard of or used these products yet, whereas high school students have already been exposed to them,” she said. It’s better to get the message through to them before they start using.”
In an email Tuesday, Ted Kwong, a spokesperson for JUUL Labs in San Francisco, said the company shares a common goal with policymakers, regulators, parents, school officials, and community stakeholders.
“We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL,” Kwong wrote. “We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated.”
Kwong said it was never JUUL Labs’ intent to have young people use its products.
The company implemented an action plan to address underage use of JUUL products, which included suspending the distribution of certain flavored JUUL pods to traditional retail stores as of November 17, 2018. The plan also eliminated the company’s Facebook and Instagram accounts and implemented a more accurate age verification system on the company website.
“We are committed to working with lawmakers, the Surgeon General, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, state attorneys general, local municipalities, and community organizations as a transparent and responsible partner in this effort,” Kwong wrote.