BUFFALO, N.Y. — The fact that students are brazenly puffing on e-cigarettes in schools, sometimes in front of teachers, risking suspension or worse...leads health officials to believe that this is a symptom of widespread nicotine addiction among our nation's youth.
While a lot of news coverage is focused on the shock value of what's happening in schools, 2 On Your Side asked a panel of students at Iroquois High School in Elma to explain what they're also exposed to outside school walls.
"In the student parking lot, like as soon as you walk out of school, there are just so many kids that just have them out," explains senior, Rachel Kelly.
High school senior, Adam Reichert adds, "Outside of school, there's so many people I know that do it. It's just crazy. I just expect when I go somewhere that there's going to be people vaping."
"I can say like three out of six kids probably have a vape that's being passed around to everyone else," said senior, Ashley McCloskey.
"They do it when they get together," said Iroquois Central Superintendent, Douglas Scofield. "It's part of how they have fun."
The vaping industry started marketing e-cigarettes as a cessation tool for traditional smokers. However, CDC numbers from 2013 show more than a quarter million middle school and high school students, who never smoked regular cigarettes, had used e-cigarettes. That's three times as many students vaping from 2011.
Vaping believed to be "safe":
Here's what Dr. Andrew Hyland, Chair of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, has to say about that: "Safer than cigarettes? I'd say yes. The answer to that is yes. Safe? Uh, no..."
Which is why there is so much concern over how vaping has now developed from a cessation tool into a recreational trend, exploding in popularity with videos of vapers being shared all over social media.
"It's difficult to convince a person to change their behavior if they don't think that the behavior is putting them at risk," said Erie County Health Commissioner, Dr. Gail Burstein. "There's nothing good about it. It's not just water. It's all poison."
Here's what we know about e-cigarettes:
There are a number of brands offering different designs but they all essentially operate the same way.
The e-liquid passes over a heating element creating an aerosol...
Besides nicotine, that aerosol also has ultra-fine particles, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals (such as nickel, tin, and lead), and known cancer-causing chemicals (like benzene and formaldehyde).
All of this is being breathed deep into the lungs.
Roswell Park did their own research in an effort to determine the cancer risk of e-cigarette vapor.
Dr. Hyland explains, "We take the vapor and blow it over the cells and look at how those cells develop, mutate."
They repeated the process with combustible cigarettes and clean air, to compare.
As one might expect, the e-cigarette vapor caused some mutation, but not nearly as much as traditional cigarettes.
"It's kind of in the middle," said Dr. Hyland of the e-liquid vapor results compared to the others. "A little bit closer to the clean air, actually, than the cigarette smoking...but I think it's all relative. Cigarette smoking...there is not another product that is so toxic."
That seems like a win for e-cigarettes until you consider the concerning new data which shows vaping can lead teens to try smoking traditional cigarettes. Will that mean smoking numbers will go back up again? Dr. Hyland says it's too soon to tell.
The big unknown...flavorings:
This is why there is a huge push on the federal level for even more research. Roswell Park is again at the forefront on this. They are one of only nine centers in the U.S. researching vape products for the Food & Drug Administration.
They just got a $20-million grant to partner with the University of Rochester in the only study in the nation focused on e-liquid flavors.
Dr. Hyland gave us the questions they're trying to find answers to through their research, "Is there an extra toxicity? Are those flavors themselves actually adding to the risk? Do (flavored e-liquids) promote dependence, kind of encourage you to keep coming back? Do they sweeten the poison?"
Some flavors, such as diacetyl, are already on their radar.
In 2007, diacetyl made headlines after it lead to a health scare surrounding microwave popcorn.
Hundreds of factory workers came down with irreversible and in some cases fatal lung disease.
It's called bronchiolitis obliterans, more commonly referred to as "popcorn lung". It's symptoms are similar to COPD.
Researchers found that diacetyl, a chemical used to give the popcorn its buttery flavor.
Manufacturers stopped using diacetyl after that debacle, but the chemical is popping up again...in flavored e-liquids.
"Some individuals inhale them once," explains Dr. Jamie Wooldridge, Medical Director of the Lung Center at Oishei Children's Hospital, "and they have this immediate lung disease and they develop scarring that they have for the rest of their lives."
Researchers at Harvard looked at 51 brands and found 39 of them contained diacetyl. But the frightening fact is that's just a fraction of the e-liquid flavors currently on the market. There are thousands.
"We keep disguising things that are bad for kids, alcohol, now the nicotine," said Carol Townsend, Principal, Depew High School, after her testimony about why e-liquid flavors should be banned before the Erie County Legislature in January. "We're soon going to be moving into marijuana that are all going to be disguised...you're going to have gummy bear and candy marijuana edibles and nuts you know laced in marijuana and these are all going to be legal."
E-cigarettes & Marijuana:
There is already very real concern about e-cigarettes and marijuana products. School administrators are finding more students dabbing, using vaporizers to heat and inhale concentrated marijuana hash oil, which is extremely potent.
"We had a student from another school at our football game last year," testified John Brinker, principal of West Seneca West High School. "She needed medical attention. We called in medical. We were convinced she was on opioids. It wasn't. She had an e-cig on her, and it was a Juul. It was a highly concentrated dab."
"It's heartbreaking to see that," said West Seneca East principal, Jason Winnicki of that same event, "and to make those phone calls home to parents and tell them that happened to their kid."
We asked the Iroquois High School students how often they're exposed to dabbing.
"I've definitely been at parties where that's there," admits Rachel Kelly, "and people were using it. But people usually know what's in it."
"You definitely know the difference between a dab pen and a vape," added Ashley McCloskey.
Concentrated marijuana hash oil comes in many forms and their names (ie. Earwax, Shatter, Brittle) closely resembles what they look like.
Even if you're sure your kid isn't vaping, second-hand exposure is still a risk, especially if they hang out with friends who vape regularly.
The U.S. Surgeon General has warned that many of those concerning chemicals and particles are also present in second-hand vapor.
WATCH PART 1: "My kid doesn't vape..." Well, their friends do.