The vapor spiraled upward, dissipating into the air around him. He lifted the electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette, back up to his mouth, took another puff, then carefully tucked it back into his left front pants pocket. The bell rang and he walked back out of the bathroom. Back to high school. Back to class.
This senior, who agreed to be interviewed only if we didn’t use his name, said he has been using e-cigarettes for over five months.
“In my experience, e-cigarettes are a very relaxing practice,” he said. “They give me inner peace. Whenever I’m stressed out, they’re a great way for me to just chill.”
And this senior isn’t alone. E-cigarettes are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to cigarettes and other tobacco products.
“I probably take around 100 puffs every day,” a junior, who also consented to be interviewed only if we kept him anonymous, said. “I’m addicted to nicotine. I’m not worried about being addicted. I know it’s not really harming me, and it makes me feel good.”
But the FDA has expressed interest in regulating e-cigarettes because of these health risks. The bureaucracy doesn’t share the junior’s opinion about the neutral health effects of e-cigarettes.
Their website warns that e-cigarettes “have not been fully studied so consumers currently don’t know how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use.”
The reason the product hasn’t been examined with as much depth as similar products, like cigarettes, is because it’s relatively new, especially to the world of teenagers and school districts.
According to About.com, e-cigarettes were introduced into the modern world by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik in 2004. In the 10 years the product has been commercially available, its popularity has significantly increased.
E-cigarette use more than doubled in high school and middle school students between 2011 and 2012, according to the CDC. The percentage of these students using them went from 4.7% in 2011 to 10% in 2012.
And the halls of DHS have just started to feel the effects of the newly popular products.
ìE-cigs hit the radar screen less than a month ago for us,î Principal Kit Moran said. ìThe e-cig thing is so far ahead of the law and the lawmakers that itís tough to pin it down. I think weíll get to the point that there will be a state law about it.î
But currently, thereís nothing in the parent-student handbook that specifically prohibits e-cigarette use.
ìRight now, we donít necessarily have a policy on it,î Moran said. ìWe are considering them to be like cigarettes right now, and weíre treating them as such. Different schools are doing different things. From my point of view, there are harmful chemicals in them.î
Whether or not the school is trying to prevent e-cigarette usage in the schools, students continue to use them. They do it on the sly, trying to avoid the watchful eyes of teachers, administrators and the occasional classmate.
Both the junior and senior interviewed said they frequently use their e-cigarettes in the school bathrooms, where the odorless vapor quickly disperses after each exhale, covering their tracks.
Steve, however, has ventured to take the practice one step further. He and several friends bring e-cigarettes to class and use them during the hour.
ìIíll use it in class if I get the chance to,î he said. ìBut Iím careful and I havenít been caught yet.î
Moran said there have only been a couple of incidents involving administrators catching students using e-cigarettes so far, and that it has been years since students have tried to smoke traditional cigarettes on school grounds.
He also said heís not sure, at this point, what direction e-cigarettes will take, because theyíre such a new problem. Right now, he is mainly concerned about the health risks.
ìThere is an addictive quality to those kinds of things,î he said. ìThereís no one time bad overuse, and nobody binge smokes, but we know thereís an addictive quality to it. So you start smoking, then you become addicted to the chemicals in it, and that creates a bad habit thatís detrimental to your health and your pocketbook.î
CVS recently announced that it was cutting out sales of all tobacco products at its stores, because they felt that a store promoting health shouldnít also sell products that can be extremely detrimental to health. However, they still donít sell e-cigarettes because theyíre waiting on guidance from the FDA, who is looking into regulating the products.
The potentially harmful effects of e-cigarettes are why they are only available to people who are at least 18 years old. But police deputy Jeremy Hilobuk said that this doesnít always stop minors from acquiring the illegal products.
ìItís not that often that we see fake IDs,î he said. ìI think maybe they get it through other means, whether it be a friend they know whoís older or stores that arenít checking IDs. Some of the stores get busy, and they forget to keep track of those kinds of things. Itís probably 50-50 for the entire county.î
And this is how the junior gets his hands on the products that he legally should not be able to buy.
ìIím friends with the guys who work at the store I buy stuff at,î the junior said. ìThey know me, and they let me buy it, even though Iím not 18.î
So Hilobuk and the Washtenaw County Sheriff Department are trying to prevent this kind of thing from happening by performing stings. They work with minors and have them try to buy tobacco or nicotine products from various businesses around the county. If the business is noncompliant, meaning it sells these things to the minors, then the police intervene and give the business a ticket. Hilobuk said the business then has to pay a fine thatís generally around $100.
ìDexter is pretty good,î he said. ìWe get good compliance around here. Itís when we head East to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and places over there that the compliance gets a little lower.î
If the business is noncompliant, then the Sheriff Department performs the same sting some time later to try to get compliance the next time.
ìItís really training them to remember to check IDs and keep things legal,î Hilobuk said.
Of course, there are exceptions. The senior we interviewed, for example, turned 18 since he started using e-cigs and tobacco products, but he also has a fake ID that he used when he was 17.
Neither person says he is nervous about the effect of e-cigarettes on his health. Both, similar to millions of high school students across the country, will continue to use the products and worry about his future later.
ìI like e-cigarettes. They give me a head rush,î the senior said. ìI donít consider myself addicted right now and Iím not really worried about becoming addicted, because theyíre just not that potent. I figure that I could use e-cigs for the rest of my life and not have a problem.î