At Riverhead High School, 49 percent of students say they’ve used electronic cigarettes and 20 percent say they believe e-cigarettes are not harmful.
Those are numbers collected by the Riverhead Youth Coalition, a group of students in grades seven through 12 whose goal is to prevent drug and alcohol abuse among youth.
Every two years, under the auspices of the Riverhead Community Awareness Program, the coalition completes a survey of students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12. The most recent results are from 2016.
E-cigarettes are devices that heat a liquid into an aerosol that users then inhale, according to an online statement from U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. The liquid usually contains nicotine and flavoring, and other additives. The nicotine, which comes from tobacco, is addictive, the Surgeon General warns.
The use of e-cigarettes has grown tremendously in the past few years, especially among teens, officials say.
And students in the Riverhead Youth Coalition are concerned about their possible impact.
“You may be wondering about the healthiness of the cigarettes,” Youth Coalition member Nina Geraci said at CAP’s annual “meet and greet” with the community last Thursday afternoon. “Kids will say that it’s just flavors or that or water, implying that they’re harmless. The truth is this what we don’t know about e-cigarettes because they haven’t been fully studied. Remember when everyone thought that regular cigarettes are harmless?”
Nina added: “E-cigarettes contain the same nicotine as regular cigarettes. And once people are addicted to the nicotine, it’s really hard to quit. Preliminary research indicates that e-cigarettes cause damage to the lungs, brain and heart, and cancerous tumor development and pregnancy complications have been reported.”
Coalition member Max Solarz said tobacco companies market e-cigarettes to youth.
The e-liquid has trendy names like “Big Belly Jelly” and has flavors like fruit loops, cotton candy and ice cream, Max said.
The companies that make and market e-cigarettes are the same companies that make cigarettes, the group says.
For instance, e-cigarette companies blu and VUSE are both owned by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.
Coalition members said e-cigarettes that market themselves as nicotine-free have been shown to contain trace amounts of nicotine.
According to the Surgeon General, e-cigarettes can contain potentially harmful ingredients such as ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs; flavorants like diacetyl, a chemical linked to serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin and lead.
“I’m hearing a lot that in high school there are kids doing it in the bathroom, on the buses, in the class, in between classes,” said parent Keri Stromski. “It’s a huge issue.”
She said some students put THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gets people high, in the e-cigarette.
Ms. Stromski said a store called Vape Nation just opened near her in Jamesport. She feels the town should pass legislation limiting vape stores.
“We need to get in front of this, not behind it,” she said. “We cannot play catch-up with this. This is a gateway drug.”
Kelly Miloski, CAP’s community prevention specialist, said more than 30 gas stations in Riverhead Town sell e-cigarettes. They are also sold in some convenience stores as well as stores that are specifically e-cigarette stores.
Two popular types of e-cigarettes are Bo and JUUL, which come in shapes that look more like a flash drive for a computer.
Suffolk County law bans the sale of e-cigarettes or liquid nicotine to anyone under 21.
In 2013, CAP received a five-year, $125,000 per year Drug-Free Communities Grant administered by the White House Office of National Drug Control Police, according to CAP director Felicia Scocozza.
For the five years, which end this year, they had to focus on two drugs, and chose to emphasize prescription drug abuse and underage drinking, both of which they say are predictors of heroin use.
CAP will apply for another grant that runs from 2018 to 2023, with a plan to focus on underage drinking and marijuana prevention, as well as e-cigarettes, according to Ms. Scocozza.
She said heroin and prescription drug abuse rates are declining in 12th grade and throughout Riverhead. But, she said, “Marijuana use is very closely linked to future prediction of heroin use. New research shows that people who used marijuana before age 17 are four times more likely to develop an opioid addiction.”
The federal Food and Drug Administration is in the process of developing policies on vaping. In a recent statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, “I’ve talked to ex-smokers, who’ve told me that they quit cigarettes altogether and that they now vape.” But he acknowledged that “anecdotes aren’t the same as data” and that the FDA is gathering data.
Mr. Gottlieb added: “Because almost 90 percent of adult smokers started smoking by the age of 18, it’s imperative we look at new ways we can ensure that kids don’t progress from experimentation to regular use.”