Vape debate: Are e-cigarettes wiping out teen smoking?

A Massachusetts high school principal displays vaping devices that were confiscated from students in such places as restrooms or hallways.

FRANKLIN — Vaping has reached epidemic levels among teenagers, with consequences that can be dire and even deadly.

That was the message brought home Tuesday night at a vaping forum at Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High School.

About 50 area students, school staff and parents turned out for the forum, sponsored by Tri-County’s Legal and Protective Services Career Program students.

It featured a panel of local experts who discussed the effects of vaping and efforts underway to curtail it.

“What we’re trying to do is solve and address this epidemic. The reality is, vaping is addictive,” state Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, said. “We’re seeing children become addicted in a very short time frame.”

Studies have calculated the nicotine from smoking a pod vape equals at least a pack of cigarettes.

“It’s truly, truly a gateway drug,” Dooley said, referring to vaping products that involve THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gives a high.

Young people are also attracted to vaping products because they often are flavored, have no smell, and can be easily concealed.

“We’re trying to slow it down. It’s designed purely to be an easier method to start smoking,” Dooley said. “It’s marketed as a wonderful, safe alternative to smoking. It’s getting our kids addicted. It’s getting our kids killed.”

Acknowledging he is also very concerned about the situation because he is a father of four children, Dooley told of efforts at the state Legislature to restrict and tax vaping products and ban flavored tobacco products.

(On Thursday, Massachusetts lawmakers passed a groundbreaking ban on the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products. The bill would also place a 75 percent excise tax on vaping products. The bill now goes to the desk of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.)

While retailers will lose sales and the state will lose sales tax revenue, the legislator pointed out health costs consume nearly half the state budget.

“It’s an aerosol, it’s a chemical, it’s not good for the lungs,” Dooley said of vaping.

Dr. Lester Hartman of Westwood-Mansfield Pediatrics agreed and emphasized that it is still unclear just how dangerous vaping is.

“It’s more addictive than cigarettes,” he said.

Hartman said the still developing brains of young people are being damaged by vaping, adding, “It’s really scary.”

Warning signs of young people doing a lot of vaping include coughing, vomiting and losing weight, he said.

Hartman, who has lobbied at the state and local levels to curb vaping, said it began several years ago but has really picked up in recent years.

“People were not listening,” he said. “I gave warnings.”

Hartman said tobacco and vaping companies have long been targeting young people, colleges and specific racial communities — namely blacks.

Statistics have shown Massachusetts is the eighth worst state when it comes to vaping, with about 20 percent of teens regularly using.

However, Franklin Police Officer Paul Guarino, who is the school resource officer at Tri-County and Franklin High School, estimated about three-quarters of teens in the two schools are vaping and about 90 percent have tried it. He added those percentages mirror other schools.

He said he learned 900 vaping pods could be sold within an hour at Franklin High.

Guarino also said the THC products are being sold on the black market via the internet.

Social worker Mary Ellen Bronner, who works at Tri-County, told of efforts to help get students off vaping products. Instead of lengthy out-of-school suspensions, the violators attend a special program.

“There’s been a huge uptick in the number of students vaping,” Bronner said.

“This is something that should be taught in elementary schools now,” Hartman said. “It’s poison.”

For more information, visit mass.gov/vaping.

Stephen Peterson can be reached at 508-236-0377.

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