Left, at Knox Jr. High in Johnstown, youth sign a banner to pledge to be the first tobacco free generation. 
Right, Matthew Murphy of Amsterdam High School puts up a lawn sign to educate his peers, noting that the average age of a new smoker is 13.
Left, at Knox Jr. High in Johnstown, youth sign a banner to pledge to be the first tobacco free generation. Right, Matthew Murphy of Amsterdam High School puts up a lawn sign to educate his peers, noting that the average age of a new smoker is 13.

Lauren Kraushaar of Christ the King parish in Westmere, Albany, a recent graduate of The University at Albany, was heading out with a friend one Saturday night when her friend pulled out a Juul: a gray, slender electronic cigarette that resembled a USB drive more than a traditional cigarette.

As Lauren watched, her friend took a pull from the device and exhaled a white cloud of fruity vapor.

“It was kind of overnight, but now all my friends have vapes,” Lauren told The Evangelist. “Before it was, like, this fun thing that once in a while people would do. Now, it’s all the time.”

A vape, also called an electronic cigarette or e-cigarette, is an electronic device containing nicotine, which simulates the feeling of smoking without the other harmful effects of tobacco found in regular cigarettes.

With enticing flavors like mango, mint and crème brulee, more and more teens are picking up the vaping habit. ABC News reported that e-cigarette brand Juul saw sales skyrocket 700 percent in 2016. Today, the brand accounts for approximately half of the e-cigarette market.

In the Diocese

The Albany Diocese is no exception to the rise in teen vaping, and Catholic Charities is taking action to protect youth.

“A lot of young people are getting addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes and Juuls,” explained Patrice Vivirito.

Mrs. Vivirito is program coordinator for Catholic Charities’ Advancing Tobacco-Free Communities (ATFC) and Reality Check program in Fulton and Montgomery Counties. In response to the drastic rise in vaping among teens, ATFC has taken on a new initiative of decreasing the prevalence of e-cigarettes in the community.

“There’s a whole culture to it,” Mrs. Vivirito noted. “You can see people [online] doing vape tricks and smoke tricks.”

The ATFC is a grant-funded program  that is part of the New York State Tobacco Control program. The ATFC of Fulton and Montgomery Counties is part of a network of regional grantees working to support a tobacco-free New York.

‘Reality Check’

The ATFC has two main components: establishing community engagement and working with the youth. The grant’s program, “Reality Check,” works to teach local youth about the tobacco industry’s marketing tactics and empower teens to stand against smoking and vaping.

“Within the last two years, we saw an uptick in e-cigarettes,” said Sarah Kraemer, Reality Check coordinator. “It’s a little bit of a setback. In 2016, high school smoking rates were the lowest they’ve ever been. Now, it’s up 10 to 20 percent.”

According to Juul’s website, the e-cigarette is designed for adults, ages 21 and older. However, many underage teens are able to purchase Juuls and other e-cigarettes from retail stores like gas stations and vape shops.

As part of the program, Mrs. Kraemer and Mrs. Vivirito visit local middle and high schools in Fulton and Montgomery Counties, giving presentations about the facts of smoking nicotine or ingesting tobacco.

In the past, Reality Check has worked with students at Amsterdam High School to put up lawn signs about tobacco companies. At Knox Junior High in Johnstown, students created a pledge to become the first smoke-free generation. Realty Check has also visited Canajoharie Middle School, and Johnstown High School.

Mrs. Kraemer said that many students in that area use chewing tobacco, but the two women have since added additional information about Juuls and e-cigarettes to their presentation.

Teens don’t realize

Mrs. Vivirito said that, gauging by the students with whom they’ve spoken, “63 percent of Juul users don’t know that [Juuls] contain nicotine.” In reality, one Juul “pod” — the cartridge inserted into the device that gets heated — delivers around 200 puffs containing the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.

“Kids need to know what they’re getting themselves into,” said Mrs. Kraemer.

Juuls are often marketed as a safer alternative to regular cigarettes because they contain no tar or tobacco, but Mrs. Vivirito says that “using e-cigarettes or Juuls is not a safe alternative to cigarettes.”

According to an article in the journal Pediatrics, the long-term health impacts of e-cigarettes are still unknown, and doctors have expressed concern on the side effects of nicotine addiction on young adults’ developing brains.

Both Mrs. Kraemer and Mrs. Vivirito said that addiction to nicotine in Juuls could easily be a gateway to using cigarettes or other tobacco products.

Saurabh Kumar, a junior at Guilderland High School in Albany, said that even students who are aware that vapes contain nicotine “simply don’t care” that it’s addictive.

“People are really desensitized to that type of stuff now,” he said. “It’s definitely a, ‘So what if it hurts me?’ kind of attitude.”

Marketing to youth

Reality Check also focuses on shady marketing tactics used by tobacco and e-cigarette companies to appeal to a broader, younger audience. Tobacco companies are known to push point-of-sale tactics, said Mrs. Kraemer: for example, placing cigarettes at eye level at checkout counters.

Juul Labs is no exception: The company hires social media influencers to promote its product online. Thousands of videos can be found online of teens posting “vape tricks” to social media pages, feeding into the growing vape culture.

Finding a way to tackle the growing number of students desensitized to vaping is “a new battle,” said Mrs. Kraemer.

The New York Times, which reported on Juul Labs’ domination of the e-cigarette market, called the rise in teen vaping and smoking “a public health crisis.” In November, the Food and Drug Administration sought out to establish restrictions — and potentially ban — certain flavors of e-cigarettes in response to their growing appeal to teens.

Middle and high schools are cracking down, too, as more and more students try to sneak Juuls and e-cigarettes into classrooms. As part of their presentation, the Reality Check women also speak with school faculty and staff about how to notice if students are vaping.

Saurabh said Guilderland High School started taking disciplinary action against students caught vaping on school property. Many students are known to sneak into bathrooms to smoke, he said, and he’s heard that teachers have followed students into bathrooms on the assumption that kids will be vaping.

“I saw my husband’s father use tobacco, and I saw it kill him,” said Mrs. Kraemer. “The job I have is really important. We need to educate the youth.”

(For more information on Catholic Charities’ Advancing Tobacco-Free Communities and Reality Check, call 518-762-8313.)