When Janelle Jessee speaks, seventh graders listen. As educator for St. Vincent’s Smoke Stoppers cancer-prevention program, Jessee travels throughout Connecticut speaking to middle and high schoolers about the dangers of smoking. During a presentation last June at Fairfield Woods Middle School, she posed two questions: “How many of you know someone who smokes?” Six kids out of about 40 raised their hands. “How many of you know someone who vapes?” More than half the room held up their hands.
Surprised? The 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey estimated over five million middle and high schoolers had used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days with a million admitting to daily use. Connecticut’s department of public health estimates current use by high school students at almost 15 percent, and almost 12 percent in ages 18 to 24.
Delivering the grisly details of prolonged use and addiction, Jessee sparks a multitude of questions among her young listeners. Her mission? To make sure no teen ever begins smoking or vaping. At the end of class she asks for a show of hands as to who thinks they might try vaping. Not one goes up.
Many share that mission. With “Tobacco 21” signed into law last June, Connecticut became the 16th state in the nation to prohibit the sale of tobacco and vaping products to anyone under 21. The law became effective October 2019, just about when EVALI, the deadly illness associated with vaping began making headlines. One 15-year-old died in Texas and a 17-year old had to undergo a double lung transplant. In Connecticut, 46 cases and one death were reported, with almost 40 percent in Fairfield County, and two-thirds under the age of 25.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network director of government relations Bryte Johnson has been lobbying on this issue for five years, and extols the work of State Rep Cristin McCarthy Vahey, Sen. Mae Flexer, and public-health co-chair Jonathan Steinberg, in passage of the bill.
Alison Burt, a sophomore at Fairfield Warde, traveled to Hartford to testify for Tobacco 21. She compares it to her grandparents generation being the guinea pigs for Big Tobacco. “I hate seeing kids using them and thinking it’s not as bad as cigarettes.”
Anna Greer, director of Sacred Heart University’s master of public health program, was concerned. “Is it as bad as everyone thinks it is? Yes it is.” Greer sent a questionnaire to all undergraduates. At a 25 percent response rate, 40 percent were current vape users and almost 70 percent said that they had tried vaping. “Now we have a responsibility to address it,” she says. “We asked if they knew the amount of nicotine that was in their device and most did not know. Nicotine is highly addictive. For young adults and adolescents it can be damaging to brain development. There are other chemicals in vape devices that in early studies have been linked to different negative outcomes.”
McCarthy Vahey did not rest at passage of the bill. As chair of Fairfield Cares Community Coalition, she has been convening forums to increase the public awareness of vaping and cessation, gathering experts from medicine, public health, education, and government.
State Attorney General William Tong recently attended a forum in Fairfield, and recounted talking to students at UConn Stamford. “I said I was taking on JUUL and the vaping industry. When I say that around adults, I get ‘Yes! Go Get ‘em!’ When I said this to a lot of 18 and 19 year olds, I got a lot of snickering and eye rolling. Frankly it was a little chilling to see that reaction. That’s why Connecticut has launched an investigation of JUUL in regards to its marketing. In particular, its marketing to children.”
Ruth Canovi of the American Lung Association spoke during a forum at St. Vincent’s. “It is a nationwide issue that requires a nationwide response. We are urging and advocating the FDA to take action. We are seeing lots of localities try to pick up the slack.” This call to action for the FDA is echoing up and down auditoriums across the state.
Providers are also confronted with the problem. “We are seeing a lot more teens and college students who are either vaping themselves or are exposed to vaping. Two years ago I used to ask about marijuana and cigarettes. A year ago we started asking about vaping. I probably see two or three kids a week that are vaping,” says Dr. Jacob Hen, a pediatric pulmonologist.
State Sen. Tony Hwang notes: “We have to address the flavoring content. That is intended to attract and appeal to young users. That is something we are going to attack and address moving forward.“
McCarthy Vahey is ready. “Going forward, those of us who worked together on “Tobacco 21”—legislators and advocates—are fully engaged and ready to continue, because we know that is just one step in the battle. Now that we know the consequences can be deadly there is urgency there.”