A National Youth Tobacco Survey shows alarming increases in usage not just among high school students, but kids as young as third and fourth grade.
Products like Juul were created to provide adult smokers with an alternative to the habit of cigarette smoking, but the accessibility and menu of vape flavors make it all too easy for kids to get hooked.
Along with the pressure of schoolwork, 8th graders like Dakota Van Eck face pressure from classmates to fit in. These days, that may include a trendy, handheld vaping device.
“I think that people think it’s cool because they’re not supposed to be doing it,” said Dakota Van Eck, an 8th grader in San Luis Obispo County.
The peer pressure to be cool has long been associated with cigarette use but now, the device created to help cigarette smokers kick the habit has booked a younger generation.
Recent data from the FDA shows a 48 percent increase in e-cig use among middle school students nationwide from 2017 to 2018.
In SLO County, 3 percent of seventh graders and 11 percent of ninth graders reported using e-cigs in the same year.
“It smells good and it doesn’t hurt when you inhale it like cigarettes, so the kids seem to think that it is harmless,” said Justina Van Eck, Dakota’s mom.
While major retailers like Juul say their product is for adult use, health workers know how attractive it is to teens.
“Teachers are kind of at a loss of what to do,” said Inger Appanaitis, the SLO County Tobacco Control Program manager. “It’s almost like they can’t turn their back on the classroom because it’s so prevalent. ”
Often times resembling a USB drive, the sleek and discrete nature of e-cigarettes makes them easy to use in schools.
“They might put it under their sleeve,” said Appanaitis. “We have heard about girls putting it inside their bra strap and just reaching down like that.”
Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigs offer convenience, a smooth inhale, and a variety of flavors, which is why the FDA is now taking action to restrict the sale of e-cigs to minors, but many say that’s not happening quickly enough.
“This a new product that has really reversed all of that progress we have made in reducing traditional smoking rates,” said Appanaitis.
A recent study by U.C. San Francisco found most adults who use e-cigs are more likely to use traditional cigarettes.
“If you ask a kid, ‘oh, would you smoke a cigarette?’ they would say, ‘oh no, those are gross, I wouldn’t touch that’, but now that they are flavored and they taste good it just makes it a lot easier for them to like and get hooked,” said Britt Stanley, the director of operations for the northern Santa Barbara County Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
Stanley works with kids who are dependent on these types of products. He says he’s even received a vaping referral for a child as young as nine years old.
“Some kids are addicted, other kids are doing it because it is the cool thing to do and other kids are just using it because they want to forget,” Stanley said.
For some, it’s as easy as buying a t-shirt online.
“Yeah, it is scary,” Stanley said. “We had a young man the other day who ordered a vape online with his mom’s credit card.”
Smoke shop owners like Elia Akhare don’t make it so easy for kids to buy tobacco products.
“You have to be over 21 to come inside,” said Akhare, owner of Rare Candy smoke shop in Atascadero.
As a new owner, he doesn’t want to risk losing his business.
“Kids are not allowed to come in here,” Akhare said. “We put signs everywhere. The problem is the online because anyone can steal an ID and order whatever they want.”
“I’m just worried that they are going to get addicted to it and carry it on and who knows what will happen to their health in the future,” said Justina Van Eck.
Stanley encourages parents to pay attention to their children’s friends and engage with them.
It’s advice that Van Eck says helps keep her son away from vaping at this impressionable age.
“Starting with vaping and then going up to all these other things that we hear happen in high school, vaping is the first one we have to deal with as parents apparently,” she said.
A spokesperson from JUUL Labs said in a statement, “We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products… Our intent was never to have youth use JUUL products. We have taken dramatic action to contribute to solve this problem, which is why we implemented the JUUL Labs Action Plan to address underage use of JUUL products. “