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Young people speak out on the growing debate surrounding e-cigarettes

It was 1969 when Canisius High School was in the middle of a fiery debate that was replicated at schools all across America: whether cigarette smoking should continue to be allowed inside the school building and on campus.

Times have changed greatly since then, but much of the debate is shockingly similar. Now, schools, families and students all across America are confronted by the next national phenomena: electronic cigarettes, often referred to as e-cigs.

According to experts, these products, relatively untested and unregulated by the scientific and medical community, have the potential of being dangerous, while others equate smoking them to giving children coffee. The industry asserts that e-cigarettes help people quit more dangerous tobacco products, and this notion, as of now, cannot be fully disproven. With vapor parlors, where adults gather to buy and smoke these new e-cigarette products, opening up across Western New York, young people are speaking out, on both sides of the issue.

Cecilia Rapp, a sophomore at Williamsville South High School, has witnessed the use of electronic cigarettes in the community.

“I personally know people that use electronic cigarettes, although I do not approve,” she said. “A majority of them began using them this school year.” She added that she has seen fellow students use e-cigs inside her school building and on school grounds, particularly inside the locker rooms.

Sara Galante, a 17-year-old senior at Williamsville South High School, also noted that she heard of e-cigarette use in school locker rooms but has witnessed usage in school classrooms.

Cecilia also believes that e-cigarette use is probably a fad among young people.

“I don’t think that many young people use them in order to get off another addiction,” Cecilia said. “In fact, I think electronic cigarettes can be considered a gateway drug for some young people. Certain people believe that the use of electronic cigarettes is not harmful to their health in any relevant way, which leads them to use electronic cigarettes,” she said.

Others, like Richard Miller, a freshman at the University at Buffalo, do not see the issue with e-cigarettes, at least so far.

“I think that [the use of e-cigarettes] is not a major problem right now simply because I haven’t witnessed people using” them, he said. “I don’t even know anyone who enters vapor parlors, though as for my opinion, I don’t believe minors should be allowed to enter these places.”

Richard said he became aware of e-cigarettes two years ago at a Boulevard Mall kiosk but has not seen many of his friends or fellow classmates using them. While Richard says that he does not believe they are harmful, he does believe they should be regulated and treated as normal cigarettes and that kids simply use them to “look cool” rather than to recover from another addiction.

Most of the young people NeXt talked to confirmed that they have mostly witnessed young people using e-cigs, not adults. However, e-cigarette advocates, including those at Vapor Trails in South Buffalo, one of the largest electronic cigarette providers in the area, maintain that these products help adults quit their smoking addictions.

Abby Paquet, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Mill Middle School, said that she first heard of e-cigarettes at school last year but did not learn about them in detail until health class this year.

“I do not witness e-cigarette use at my school, but I have heard that kids have used them last year in the school building,” she said. However, she added that she does not know of any adult who uses e-cigarettes.

While one can argue that this issue of e-cigarettes has had a spotlight of attention on it in recent months, professionals say the issue is no laughing matter.

Andrew Hyland, chairman of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, is one of the area’s leading experts on tobacco and e-cigarette-related issues.

“E-cigarettes are a phenomenon that has taken the marketplace by storm,” Hyland said. “There could be some reason to believe that they may be beneficial to public health, but there is also great reason to be concerned.”

He compared recent e-cigarette usage to light cigarettes, which were once also thought to be beneficial to helping people quit their smoking addictions before more data found this not to be true.

“Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control shows a significant uptick in the use of e-cigarettes,” he said. “It should be noted that most of this is concentrated in kids smoking cigarettes already.”

He also mentioned that e-cigarettes are not under any authority of the federal government, not even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and he maintained that this murky area has caused a lot of confusion for young people and parents alike.

“There is insufficient data, as of now, that conclude e-cigarettes are an efficient way to help people quit smoking,” Hyland said. “There are FDA-approved substances that people can use instead to help quit.”

One thing Hyland says he can conclude for sure is that while he knows e-cigarettes are not safe, they are safer than cigarettes, but more research is needed. He believes advertising limitations are needed immediately to limit the pervasive effect of e-cigarettes on the culture. Hyland said regulatory control of e-cigarettes is desperately needed, considering the fact that, according to him, e-cigarette labels can generally be inaccurate and often misleading.

On the issue of addiction, Hyland maintains that there is still a possibility of young people or adults becoming addicted to e-cigarettes, even if to a lesser degree than to regular cigarettes.

“Virtually right now there is no oversight or regulation of e-cigarettes or how they are marketed, and that is certainly a big problem,” he said.

“For instance, particulate matter contained in the vapor is particularly troublesome because this fine matter can get deeper into one’s lungs and put one at greater risks for adverse health outcomes,” he said. He also mentioned how the cartridge of liquid nicotine solution in e-cigarettes can easily be replaced by any liquid, which can lead to the use of synthetic marijuana.

One silver lining, he said, is that there is a lot less repeat usage of e-cigarettes among the general population than with cigarettes, and he attributes much of this to the lack of uniformity regarding the nicotine levels in e-cigarettes, as users do not often feel the same effect of the product each time.

School superintendents and adult leaders say parents are immensely concerned about electronic cigarettes and their impact on young people. Students feel similar as well.

Sara believes that e-cigarettes are appealing because they have loose restrictions on them and are similar in many ways to cigarettes.

“I think that [this issue] is not being blown out of proportion because the more kids know about it, the less likely they will be to use [e-cigarettes],” she said. While Sara does acknowledge that e-cigarettes can help adults quit their smoking addictions, she thinks that they are a bad idea for children.

“I think this is an issue we should be addressing because I think that once someone uses an e-cigarette, he or she will be more likely to use other drugs,” she said.

Camille Green, a 17-year-old senior at Williamsville South High School, knows a young person who smokes e-cigarettes daily, but she does not know any adults who use them. She believes e-cigarettes are pervading our culture, as she sees students using them on and off school property, and she notices the vapor parlor advertisements popping up across the community.

“The individuals that I know that use e-cigarettes use them because they think it is cool and not in an attempt to get off some other addiction. I think some kids like to use them because they can technically ‘smoke’ without getting caught because they will not smell like cigarette smoke,” Camille said. “I think more studies are needed in order to determine the risks or potential harm. It also appears like the manufacturers are encouraging youth to use [e-cigarettes] as they offer flavors that are appealing to youth like bubble gum. How many adults do you know still chew bubble gum and would be interested in this flavor?”

Yaseen Abbass, a sophomore at Erie County Community College, said he tried e-cigarettes because many of his friends were doing so, but claims they were not addictive. He also said he had no prior addictions, but somewhat got peer-pressured by his friends into trying e-cigarettes.

“My father smokes, so I know the dangers of such habits,” he said. “So, if there is enough evidence proving that e-cigarettes are truly dangerous for your health, I would probably stop.” He went on to say that e-cigarette usage is very common among other young people he knows, but that he does not witness much use at his school.

Thomas Beckley-Forest, a recent graduate of Canisius High School who plans to study at Syracuse University later this year, said that he has tried e-cigarettes in the past.

“I never owned one, but I have tried them a few times,” he said. “A lot of people I know had them, and since it was something I’ve never done before, I figured I would try.”

He said that if he knew conclusively that they were dangerous, he would probably not have tried them; he also mentioned that he did not feel addicted to them in any way.

“I guess there is a possibility of being addicted to the nicotine, but they are obviously not as bad as cigarettes,” he said. “And there is also a possibility that they help people quit their much more serious smoking addictions.”

Hyland maintains that the stigmatization of cigarette smoking in recent years has led to the decline of usage among the general population; he and others believe that a similar effect with e-cigarettes could occur once these products phase out of their period in the spotlight. Surely time will only tell whether or not these products are truly here to stay or just the latest fad among young adults.

Michael Khan is a recent graduate of Canisius High School.