When her teenage son collapsed in a seizure, it hit High Point mother Kelly Kinard. Luka was addicted. He was vaping the equivalent of 80 cigarettes per day, and it took sending him to rehab in California to get him to stop.
“We see our kid’s futures going down the toilet,” Kinard said. “We saw him turn into an angry, reclusive, explosive, dishonest person that we didn’t know. It was like living with a stranger, overnight.”
Teenagers have incited a battle over whether vaping is a help to adult smokers or a menace to children. The debate has shaken the giants of the vaping industry, threatened to send small vape shops up in smoke, and sent legislators scrambling for a solution.
President Trump pushed a ban on flavored vaping products, regulators tightened their grip, and vaping advocates suggested the U.S. imposing a cap on nicotine, as Great Britain does.
Then vapers marched on the White House, shaking its public stance on bans.
The debate surged onto the floor of the General Assembly when House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake, revealed his own child once vaped, and pushed a vape tax in the final days of November’s session.
Vaping has ignited an “epidemic” of teen use. In high schools, one in five students tried vaping. Some 3 million U.S. high school students vaped in 2018, a 78% jump in one year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Students call vape pens the “11th finger.”
“I think we’ve found a clever way to seriously addict a whole new generation of kids to nicotine,” said Dr. Adam Zolotor, president of the N.C. Institute of Medicine, a health care research group that advises state policymakers.
The rise of teen vaping has baffled legislators and teachers alike. Vapes share none of the telltale signs of cigarettes: they need no lighter and leave no odor — and the devices mimic everything from watches to flash drives to hoodie strings.
“With e-cigarettes, it was done commonly in the bathroom. But with Juuls, it’s done in the classroom,” Zolotor said. “This is just so easy to do and get away with.”
Short of searching students on campus grounds, administrators have few ways to catch teen vapers. In desperation, some schools resorted to a blanket flashdrive ban. Others installed vape detectors, or removed bathroom stall doors.
“It’s notoriously tough to catch,” said Jonathan Bryant, Lincoln Charter School chief administrator. “Even if you search someone, grab them by their ankles, and shake them down, it’s still easy to hide it.”
Teenagers can’t legally buy vaping products, so doctors worry teens are vaping unregulated, black market chemicals. Vaping triggered a seizure in one of Dr. Martha Perry’s patients, who thought the only thing he was inhaling was the flavoring. Perry has no idea what caused his seizure.
“We really don’t know, that’s the thing,” said Perry, UNC School of Medicine associate professor. “What’s scary is that they often don’t know what is in it, or where it came from.”
Vaping swallowed half of Bryant’s discipline cases last year, but he remains unsure how to discipline vapers.
“If someone is addicted, we can suspend them all day, every day. But how is that ultimately helping to change behavior?” Bryant asked. “I’ll be honest, we don’t have it figured out. … Ultimately, you can’t force students or humans to do something that they truly don’t want to.”
Nothing really exists to help kids or adults quit. Old technologies were crafted with cigarettes in mind — and they are antiquated when dealing with withdrawal from doses of nicotine far stronger than a cigarette, Zolotor said.
“We’re going to have this whole generation of kids addicted to nicotine, and we have the same tools to help them quit … none of which work that well,” Zolotor said.
The scare over the vaping epidemic — which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tied to black-market marijuana — has stirred up new fears about the health effects of vaping, which was once widely accepted as a healthier alternative to cigarettes.
“We don’t know the long-term consequences of inhaling these flavors on a daily basis,” said Ilona Jaspers, UNC School of Medicine toxicologist. “We just don’t know its effects on the lungs.”
But parents think they’re already seeing the effects of sky-high nicotine levels — not just on their children’s lungs but on their character. Kinard isn’t alone in her experience with her son, said Dorian Fuhrman, co-founder of the advocacy group Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes.
Like some cities and states, Kinard and her son, who both now campaign against vaping, support a full flavor ban. But vaping advocates blame nicotine, rather than flavored vapes, for the surge in teen use. They suggest capping the amount of nicotine, or banning the nicotine salts that ease the burning sensation of vaping.
“With cigarettes, you couldn’t smoke too many in a row, or you’d get sick,” said Bradley Howell, The Juice Vapeorium shop manager in Cary. “But with salt mixes, kids can down a whole pod like it’s nothing, and that’s just not healthy. Salt mix was the downfall of this industry.”
And harm-reduction advocates argue the panic over teen vaping is overblown. The CDC’s general statistics counted students who vaped only once in 30 days instead of habitual users, who number between 800,000 and 900,000. Only 5.7% of American high schoolers regularly vape, said Julie Gunlock of the Independent Women’s Forum, a national policy think tank.
“No one is talking about the fact that teen and adult smoking is at a historic low. That’s some good news, and we have to acknowledge that the availability of e-cigarettes has at least contributed,” Gunlock said. “What’s so sad is that there are people who are quitting vaping and going back to smoking because of this panic.”