More than a hundred people gathered in the Long Beach Middle School auditorium on Monday to hear what Dr. Stephen Dewey, an adjunct psychiatry professor at New York University Langone Health, had to say about vaping — an issue that district parents say is of great concern.
Dewey is no stranger to Long Beach, having spoken to students in 2016 about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain. After receiving positive feedback about the program from parents and students, Long Beach AWARE, a local organization dedicated to preventing alcohol and substance abuse among young people, invited him back to focus on vaping.
“We all hope that the learning will help us to tackle and take action for this escalating problem in our schools,” said Board of Education Trustee Tina Posterli.
The vaping phenomenon has grown in popularity with the rise of e-cigarettes, like Juul, a common brand, according to the Center on Addiction, a national organization that assists people who are addicted to substances. At past school board meetings, parents have voiced their concerns about students vaping in school bathrooms.
The liquid inside vaporizers typically contains nicotine, flavoring and other chemicals and metals, but not tobacco. Some contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. And while some e-cigarette brands market to adults to help them transition away from cigarettes, the devices fall into the hands of children as well.
“That makes sense,” Heather Locascio, a mother of two middle school students in the district, said sarcastically after the presentation. “Let’s make something taste like cotton candy for adults. No, they’re gearing it towards the kids, so it should be a crime in itself.”
Dewey, who has studied and researched addiction for years, said that he often hears people tell him that they believe vaping is safe because “it’s just steam.” But the vaping devices produce a potentially harmful aerosol rather than water vapor.
“The physics behind vaping is trivial,” Dewey said, explaining that metal coils inside the vaping devices heat up liquids to produce an aerosol.
“The thing that I find the most disconcerting is it has the youngest age of initiation of any addictive substance we’ve seen,” he continued, adding that he has seen elementary-age children vaping. He said that children also become addicted to the behavior of vaping, much as they become addicted to playing video games.
“The metal that gets used on these things is an alloy of nickel, chromium and cadmium,” Dewey said, adding that cadmium is listed on the Occupational Safety and Health Ad-ministration website as a toxic metal that is a known potential cause of cancer.
Several deaths from acute exposure have occurred among welders who have worked on cadmium-containing alloys, according to the OSHA website.
“As the vapor expands, it brings with it nanoparticles of the metal,” Dewey explained. “So you have nanoparticles of nickel, chromium and cadmium. Well, where do you think they go? They go into your lungs.”
Some parents in the audience asked how to address the problem and prevent children from vaping before they become addicted to the nicotine in the e-liquid.
“One of the things we need to do is educate kids a little bit because they tell me all the time how safe this is,” Dewey said. “You’ll read that they’re safer than cigarettes. Well, safer than cigarettes is a low bar. We know that 450,000 people a year die from tobacco-related diseases.”
“This is really what Long Beach AWARE is about — educating the public, parents, lawmakers about the importance of keeping addictive substances out of kids’ hands — and brains — before” they become addicted, said Judi Vining, the organization’s executive director. “When we talk to kids, they tell us directly: ‘Make sure we can’t get it, because if we can, we’ll use it.’ There are things that parents can do, and do now — limit device time, lock up alcohol and Rx medication, arm themselves with the facts and talk with their children about this, and talk often.”
She explained that because vaping is such a new phenomenon in the community, it was not asked about during the group’s 2015 substance use survey. But 10 vaping questions have been added to the youth survey that will be distributed in the district later this month or in March, Vining said, and she plans to host a meeting to discuss the findings.
“I thought [the presentation] was really informative, and [Dewey] taught me a lot about what could happen to your brain from vaping and drinking alcohol,” said Long Beach ninth-grader Brigitte Lew, adding that she was surprised to learn about the metal that can go into the lungs.
“I thought [the presentation] was a little alarming,” Locascio said. “I have an 11-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son, and I stay on top of it as much as I can, but it’s scary. I’m just really glad that they bring [the presentation] here — it’s a great thing.”