By NEIL ZAWICKI

A small coalition of health care professionals have mounted a campaign to teach Franklin, Grand Isle and Chittenden County kids and parents the dangers of using e-cigarettes. And it’s no small task.

Vaping companies have marketed the products as a safe alternative to smoking while making the devices attractive to kids through colorful packaging a fruit flavors. Also, because it’s “not smoking,” e-cigarette use, known as “vaping,” or “chooching,” in adolescent parlance, has, since its introduction a little more than a decade ago, gained popularity and a reputation for being safe.

That is simply not the reality, says Amy Brewer, Health Educator at Northwest Medical Center, and founder of the Franklin Grand Isle Tobacco Prevention Coalition.

“We have 100 years of data on the dangers of smoking, so nobody likes smoking,” she said. “But we have no real data on vaping.”

Justin Hoy is Director of Prevention Services for Essex Community Health Initiatives and Programs for Students. He, like Brewer, is working to change attitudes. CHIPS is working with a high school group called Essex Above the Influence to help shape the message. The group recently addressed all Essex middle schoolers – about 1,000 in total – with the goal of providing a “youth-to-youth” perspective.

“It’s done in a very digestible way that’s been very successful,” said Hoy.

Hoy said he thinks prevention/health educators have to remember to still talk about bullying and peer pressure when considering the larger picture.

“We talk a lot about tobacco advertising and the tobacco industry but we’re not talking about when a friend brings it to a friend’s and tries it once and gets hooked,” he said, adding that there are “hot button” issues.

“A few years ago it was peer pressure and bullying, now it’s vaping and mental health,” he said “We have to make sure we are hitting it with today’s information but also remembering there are rooted, systemic issues [such as] peer pressure, bullying and advertising.”

Hoy said he is also trying to work with nontraditional partners, such as vape shops, to encourage them to send the right message to youth. But he acknowledged that he has to be careful doing this to not give the impression that Essex CHIPS now supports vaping.

“We support clear advertising that’s geared toward adults and properly outlines risks,” he said. “It’s about working with them to keep kids from getting it. I think there’s a common ground between nontraditional partners: We all can agree that we’ve got to keep kids safe. The only way to not speak to the choir is to engage new people.”

Vaping devices work by using a battery-powered heating element to vaporize a pod of liquid, which can be flavored and in most cases is infused with nicotine, to be inhaled.

Brewer said she worries that the trajectory toward addiction is faster with vaping devices. Specifically, she said vaping product companies, such as JUUL, have simply found a new delivery method for nicotine, so hers and the coalition’s challenge is to try and get out ahead of efforts to hook kids early.

“It’s hard to conceptualize addiction for teens,” she said.

Brewer visits local schools to reach out to students and faculty. The strategy is not to say “vaping is bad,” but to educate kids on how marketing companies and vaping device makers target them and profit from their addiction.

“We want to teach them to be skeptical of the products,” she said.

Bellows Free Academy St. Albans School Nurse Valerie Lipka is a member of the coalition, and has made it her mission this school year to tackle the rising vaping problem among teenagers. When she talks of the problem, she uses the word “epidemic.”

“We find ourselves in a situation where these addictions will play out over years,” she said. “It’s proven that if you start using nicotine before 18, you could be a lifelong smoker. I’m afraid that they’ve fallen into a trap.”

Lipka said the situation is frustrating, because after decades of efforts to change the cultural attitudes on traditional smoking, which ultimately worked, she and he colleagues are faced with a new front.

“It’s everywhere,” said fellow BFA St. Albans school nurse Jodi Walker. “It’s absolutely everywhere. And it’s sad because we have so many kids now that want to quit.”

Walker said she has seen more than few kids shaking from nicotine withdrawal.

She said the culture around vaping now is the same as attitudes toward smoking 50 or 60 years ago, simply because there wasn’t data to show the dangers. Also, said Walker, while there were stats correlating smoking and school performance, no such data exists yet with vaping.

“The use is across the board,” she said. “Kids will say they don’t smoke because it’s disgusting, but they all say they vape.”

Students caught vaping or with vaping paraphernalia on campus will have their stuff confiscated, but also are sent to Lipka for counseling on the issue.

“We’ll ask them if they feel that they’re addicted and we’ll talk to them about the risks,” she said. “We want to use it as an opportunity to intervene, rather than just a punishment.”

Students caught vaping are also required to research and write an essay on the dangers.

While consumer attitudes have not yet changed concerning vaping, medical professionals know the risks. Dr. Chip Chiapinelli is a pediatrician who opened his Franklin County practice in 1980 with offices in St. Albans and Swanton, and does a lot of work with high school age kids. He said people do not realize how dangerous vaping products are.

“They’ve got this false impression that it’s safe,” he said, explaining how tobacco companies have mounted a campaign to bill such devices as a healthy alternative to traditional smoking, or even a good way to quit, but the reality is that researchers are just now compiling data on the dangers while sales grow.

“The kids that smoke them are just guinea pigs,” he said.

Chiapinelli said not only the pods, but the vaping devices themselves introduce harmful substances to users.

“Aerosol particles are smaller than smoke particles, and they go right to alveoli in the lungs,” he said. “The damage they cause creates scar tissue, which leads to what we call ‘popcorn lung’.”

Chiapinelli said “popcorn lung,” which presents itself as round piles of bumps around the alveoli, is irreversible condition.

Chiapinelli also explained how the heating elements in the vaping devices are made of heavy metals, such as magnesium and cadmium, and trace amounts of these metals mix with the vaporized product.

“These metals can cause severe neurological deficits,” he said. “Also, the pods contain propylene clycol, which is used to carry the nicotine in the vapor, the same way tar is used in regular cigarettes.”

Propylene glycol is a chemical used to make anti freeze for cars.

“It’s really a nasty thing and the worst part about is that kids think it’s safe,” said Chiapinelli.

In fact, data is beginning to emerge regarding the risks associated with vaping. A study released March 7 from the American College of Cardiology reports that “Adults who report puffing e-cigarettes, or vaping, are significantly more likely to have a heart attack, coronary artery disease and depression compared with those who don’t use them or any tobacco products.”

While such data can help the efforts of Lipka, Brewer and Walker, reaching adolescent minds remains a challenge.

“With this age group, you have to gear it so that it is their choice (to quit),” said Lipka.

The problem has also found its way to middle schoolers. Matt Allen teaches language arts at St. Albans City School. He said kids in his class are definitely under the impression that vaping is a safe alternative.

“I think they really believe that it’s healthy for them and not harmful, and unfortunately that translates to ‘it’s cool,’” he said. “In middle school, cool is very important.”

What can be done?

Brewer said she would like to se more regulation from the Food and Drug Administration, which so far has banned fruit flavors in JUUL products.

Legislators in Montpellier have taken up the issue as well. In February, the House Human Services Committee voted unanimously to pass an e-cigarette internet sales ban, and the Senate has given preliminary approval to a bill that would raise the legal buying age to 21. Other legislative efforts include finding ways to raise the price of vaping pods and devices.

That last part, about the prices, is a major point of concern for Walker. She talked about seeing a $34 JUUL brand vaping product on sale at a convenient sore for $1.86.

“I mean, that’s their tactic?” she said. “They make it so cheap so kids can get started.”

Lipka agreed that sales and marketing for vaping products is major problem.

“They haven’t been upfront about the nicotine component,” she said. “I understand that people have business and need to make a profit, but we should all have some social responsibility for our kids.”

Lipka and Walker have formed a group modeled after an American Lung Association program called “Not On Tobacco,” which will meet regularly to offer resources and education to help kids quit.

Also, the coalition will host a parent information night April 10 at 6:30 p.m. at Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center in St. Albans, where Brewer and members of the St. Albans Police Department will be on hand to answer questions.