It’s an issue that is hard to ignore as new stories about the dangers of vaping and reports of vaping related illness are on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control estimated that in 2018, about 20 percent of high school students in the United States had used a vape in the past 30 days.

At the recent Parent University held at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Nathan Biggs, coalition director of LEAD, a non-profit organization dedicated to parents and other adults in their promotion of healthy family relationships and the prevention of alcohol, drug use and other risky behavior by youth, spoke with parents about the vaping epidemic. Biggs emphasizes that when it comes to vaping, as well as other substances like alcohol and marijuana, the vast majority of kids are not using. 

“Nationally, we see that about 20 percent of kids vape, but most people guess that number is 50 percent. That difference is where peer pressure comes in. They’re hearing from their parents and the media that everyone is doing it. It can lead to the perception that the minority is not using. The real message gets missed.”

Biggs has been involved in youth-led substance abuse prevention efforts for 18 years and says the LEAD program focuses on giving youth the skills necessary to not use illegal substances. Like smoking traditional cigarettes, vaping is not legal in Illinois for those under the age of 21. Biggs sees a tie between the nicotine delivered by vaping e-cigarettes and the abuse of substances like alcohol and marijuana by youth, in that all substance abuse by minors has a root cause beyond the substance being abused.

“High school and middle school students have stressors just like adults,” says Biggs. “It can be very addicting to find something that takes away stress for a little while.”  He also points out, “Substance abuse is a mental health issue. The younger you are when you start, the more likely you are to become addicted because the brain is still developing, and the older you get, the more skills you have to deal with the stress in your life. If you discover other, healthy coping mechanisms, you’re less likely to use.”

Perceptions about vaping have rapidly evolved since Juul entered the market in 2014, a time period which coincided with schools experiencing a massive increase in teens vaping. Juul’s electronic cigarettes smelled like candy, and the vapes were easy to hide. Biggs says that in the past few years, schools have become much better at detecting and identifying vaping. During his talks with parents and school staff, he tells them how to identify vapes and how to have tough conversations with kids about vaping. 

In the past year, LEAD representatives have spoken to over 13,000 students at over 200 schools, and Biggs sees much more adult and youth concern about the dangers of vaping. “I always ask [at presentations] ‘True or false: vaping is safer than smoking?’ Before the news on vaping related illness, almost everyone thought it was safer. Now, no one seems to think that. The perception is changing.” 

As of early November, there were 1,800 hospitalizations due to vaping-related illness nation-wide, and Illinois led the nation in reported cases. Biggs says he believes educating through scare tactics rarely works with teenagers but says it is hard to argue with the facts on vaping. “With smoking, kids see that it takes a long time to develop an illness. Seeing teenagers in the hospital today, when vaping has only been around for about four years, seems like a more pressing threat.”

Biggs says research shows that the younger teens start using nicotine, the more likely they will develop a nicotine addiction. While he is in favor of confiscating vapes from children, he also supports a holistic approach for helping teens manage addictions to nicotine.

“You can’t punish people out of an addiction. It’s really important to offer a way out and a connection with mental health resources. It’s important to bring in the parents. Kids are using for a reason; they’re not using in isolation. We need to help them find a way to fill that void.”

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