Vaping hurts local children

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“The risk of vaping now includes death.”

—California Department of Public Health Advisory issued Sept. 24

A few months ago, the Petaluma Police Department took a complaint from a frustrated parent reporting their 13-year-old son was sold vape supplies at the Empire Smoke and Vape Shop on Petaluma Boulevard North. Because vape supplies are not legally allowed to be sold to anyone under the age of 21 in California, the parent told police that, according to the son, at Empire, “there is a secret code to purchase…you say, ‘I am taking a biology class at SRJC,’ then they will sell to you.”

I called Empire on Monday and spoke with “Kevin,” who denied that such a thing would ever happen at his store. He said the complaining parent was mistaken and that it was probably the Volcano Smoke N Vape shop on East Washington Street that had illegally served the 13-year-old. I called Volcano and spoke with “Sam” who also denied selling vape supplies to minors.

Yet according to results from the latest countywide survey conducted last year by the county’s department of health, more than 17 percent of tobacco retailers in the county sold tobacco products, including vape devices, to young adult investigators. So the kids are, in fact, able to buy these products locally.

Vaping is one of the hottest new trends, especially for young adults. Like smoking cigarettes in the early 1900s, today’s use of e-cigarettes is so very cool and sexy. At least that’s the message used to target teens via social media marketing by San Francisco’s Juul Labs and other leading manufacturers of vaping devices, sales of which have skyrocketed over the last two years.

And boy did those clever “Smoking Evolved” and “Vaporized” campaigns work! Coupled with an enormous variety of appealing sweet and fruity-flavored “e-juice” cannisters that contain up to 40 cigarettes’ worth of nicotine, it did not take long for millions of young people across the country to get hooked, including hundreds right here in Petaluma.

For the uninitiated, vaping is the act of using an electronic device to inhale nicotine, cannabis or other drug into the lungs. The devices come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and can resemble pens, USB flash drives, even badge-shaped pods, making them easy to conceal from parents. All have a mouthpiece, a reservoir cartridge containing e-liquid, and a heating component powered by a small battery that turns the liquid into an aerosol to be inhaled.

According to the Sonoma County Public Health officials I spoke with, vape devices contain or produce a variety of chemicals for which the impacts on lung tissue is largely unknown. Among them are propylene glycol, found in antifreeze; acetone, found in nail polish remover; formaldehyde, used in embalming fluid; ethylbenzene, found in pesticides; and rubidium, used in fireworks. This is in addition to nicotine, a highly addictive substance which can negatively impact students’ learning, memory and attention while also causing anxiety, mood disorders and the permanent lowering of impulse control, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

Following a rising number of deaths and lung illnesses across the country linked to vaping, the California Department of Public Health last week issued a stark advisory for “everyone to refrain from vaping, no matter the substance, until current investigations are complete.”

Here in Petaluma, where very high percentages of students in high schools and junior high schools continue to vape, the crisis has become a huge cause for concern among local educators.

According to Gary Callahan, superintendent of Petaluma City Schools, “my discussion with high school students indicates that the prevalence of vaping is higher than 40%.” He added, “Our biggest concern is the types of behavior from students becoming addicted to nicotine or THC because these devices are delivering much higher concentrations than anything our kids have ever had access to previously.”

Noting that the problem of teen vaping “seems to be spinning out of control,” Callahan says he is thankful that the school district was able to obtain grant funding to underwrite an addiction counseling program, nicotine cessation classes and the installation of “vape detectors” in school bathrooms and hallways.

“But the parent education piece is the critical one,” Callahan says, since it’s relatively easy for students to avoid detection at school. “Parents should take a close look to see if this is happening under their noses.”

The ease at which young people can purchase vape devices in Petaluma is a huge part of the problem, according to Petaluma resident Pam Granger who has spent much of her life campaigning against tobacco products, both as a volunteer and as an employee of the American Lung Association, and who now chairs Tobacco Free Sonoma County.

“Parents are mad that their kids are having addiction issues because they were able to buy at local retailers,” says Granger. “We have to stop it.”

Because state regulations are so lax on the sale of e-cigarette devices to young people, and because local police lack the staffing necessary to conduct sting operations, Granger says she favors the city’s adoption of a tobacco retail license ordinance. Such a law would require stores that sell tobacco products to pay a license fee that would fund enforcement of state tobacco sale laws, including store inspections and youth purchase compliance checks. Such ordinances in other communities have proven effective at reducing illegal tobacco sales to minors and should be seriously considered for Petaluma.

The state legislature had a chance this year to enact strict laws to ban e-cigarette sales, but failed to pass meaningful legislation in the last session. They should take it up again next year.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Petaluma kids are suffering from nicotine addiction and respiratory problems, says Granger, who laments the fact that the steady progress made to lessen kids’ use of cigarettes over the last 40 years has all been lost due to the allure of sweetly flavored and equally addictive e-cigarettes.

Says Granger, “Many kids are having trouble getting through class without being able to take a hit.”

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.)

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