Last week, the Office of Student Wellness sent a campus-wide email informing students about the dangers of vaping, directing them to seek resources to quit or curtail the habit. Around this time, televisions throughout campus began to display advertisements urging students to quit vaping, on par with the school-wide email from Claudia Trevor-Wright, former director of Student Wellness.
Vaping is the use of an e-cigarette powered by a handheld battery with a vaporizer. Instead of inhaling cigarette smoke, the user inhales aerosols. Vaping was initially marketed as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, and a way to help those addicted to cigarettes quit. However, nicotine-based vaping, which can be highly addictive and harm the developing adolescent brain, is not the only widespread source used for vaping. Vapes containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis that can also be addictive, are the most popular alternative to nicotine-based vapes. Some of these vapes are sold in versions with flavors such as menthol, vanilla, mango and berries, arguably making their usage more appealing to teenagers.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of Oct. 1, 2019, 1080 lung injuries within the United States associated with vaping products have been reported. Approximately 70 percent of patients are male, and 80 percent are under 35 years old. Admission to medical care for vaping-related issues ramped up at the end of June 2019, and has accelerated since then. 18 deaths have occurred, and 78 percent of cases of illness have involved THC-containing products. Due to a lack of information about these vaping products, the CDC recommends avoiding vaping, especially products that contain THC. If one must absolutely use e-cigarettes or vapes as a method to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, the CDC urges people to avoid buying these products from informal sources or modifying them.
On Sept. 24, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared a public health emergency in response to the outbreak of vaping-related illnesses, banning the sale of all vaping products in the state for the next four months. President Donald Trump has also called for a ban on the sale of all vaping products.
Some symptoms of lung injury as a result of vaping include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, fever and abdominal pain. If anyone experiences these symptoms, they should immediately seek medical attention.
In its investigation, the CDC remarked that no single product or substance has been linked to all lung injury cases. However, the outbreak coincides with an explosion in the vaping marketplace, in which products may have a mix of unknown ingredients.
According to an anonymous survey sent out by the Wellesley News, in a sample size of about 40 people, about half of the students had used or are using vaping products. Several Wellesley students spoke to the News about their experiences with vaping products on the condition of anonymity due to the polarized debate around vaping products. A student from the Class of ’21 commented, “I think that the initial mission by these vape companies to pull people off of cigarettes was really successful and I’m really sad that all that work is turning to nothing. I come from a town where everyone I know was addicted to cigarettes but switched to vapes post graduation. Yet, after the ban they turned back to cigarettes which is statistically much worse for you. I am now worried more about their health than I was when they vaped. I also worry about how as the government shuts down regulated mom and pop vape stores, people are turning to unregulated vape juice that are the cause for these illnesses in the first place.”
Although the CDC and the government have warned consumers against the use of illegal or black market vape products, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between a legal and illegal vape product due to the lack of knowledge surrounding the ingredients of vape juices. Experts suspect that Vitamin E additives that make the pre-aerosol liquid in the vape products viscous may be the reason behind these illnesses, but no definitive cause has surfaced yet.
As more people experience vape-related illnesses, the dangers of nicotine and THC-based vaping products are not easily distinguished, especially due to a lack of information available about the concentration of their liquid-based fillings. Sue Lee ‘20 said, “I think the hope is that if we regulate the concentrations at which we take these in and hopefully with developments in delivery method of these substances we can get rid of these uncertainties and dangers, but we have a long way to go. I also advise people to look at what is said in the media about vaping while taking into consideration the dynamics between vaping companies and big tobacco, to more clearly see what each side is advocating for and who to trust.”
In the survey conducted by the News, less than half (30 percent) of students said they were aware of on-campus resources that would help them quit vaping. The survey was released after Trevor-Wright’s email was sent, which included the resources available to curtail the use of vaping products on campus. The resources primarily include website links containing medical information about vaping and recommendations such as receiving medical attention if experiencing any respiratory problems after vaping. Additionally, the email warned students against purchasing unlicensed vaping products and adding their own ingredients to modify them.
Although the College is likely to roll out more information about how to support students who vape soon, Mary O’Neal, administrative director for Newton-Wellesley Medical Group and Wellesley College Health Services encourages those who vape to make an appointment with a clinician at Health Services, as they can provide the student with sufficient care, hopefully to help them quit their use of vapes.
Nearby colleges such as Boston University and Harvard University have taken measures to help students quit vaping and smoking. Boston University has hosted campus-wide events to increase awareness of the state-wide ban and to provide students with access to its Student Health department to help quit vaping and use of nicotine products. At Harvard, articles published by the Harvard Management Update regarding the drawbacks of vaping have been promoted to the student body.
A Wellesley College student from the Class of 2021, who started vaping with nicotine-based products her first year of college to help her quit cigarette smoking commented “I’ve never had a vaping related illness. The media concentration on this issue is absolutely creating a moral panic where there should not be. I, myself, went down a massive 3-day spiral where I considered going to the ER to get a CT scan because I was not truly informed on what exactly was causing this illness.”
A member of the Class of 2020 commented, “I got mono from sharing a vape with Wellesley college students sophomore fall. I have never had any respiratory illnesses related to vaping though. I do not think the paranoia is unfounded. I think it’s really scary that so many people are getting sick with popcorn lung and other extreme respiratory illnesses. The fact that the chemical that causes popcorn lung was known not to be safe but was still allowed to be added to vapes is horrific. I hate the vape industry and resent the fact people do Juuls marketing for them with posts about how they don’t care that Juul targets young adults.
When the News reached out to Health Services, there seemed to be an apparent lack of on-campus support groups to help students addicted to vaping products curtail the habit or find support from other students.