Vaping and nicotine addiction now just part of the school day

Gabby and Sarah Ralphe
Gabby Ralphe, Dr. J Carter Ralphe, Sarah Ralphe

The 15-year-old has become all too familiar with the sickly sweet e-cigarette smell wafting through her school bathroom in Madison, Wisconsin.

“It’s all around us,” Gabby said. “To see teens so addicted to them is really scary.”

She’s witness to the growing health epidemic among young people. Teen use of e-cigarettes has become so pervasive that former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently referred to it as an “addiction crisis.”

A Vital Signs report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 4.9 million high school and middle school students used tobacco in the past 30 days. E-cigarettes were the most popular tobacco product.

Gabby’s 14-year old sister, Sarah, also sees e-cigarettes becoming more common among her middle-school classmates.

“You’ll see people smoking [e-cigarettes] outside of school and after school, but sometimes you’ll also see it in the bathrooms,” said Sarah.

At Gabby’s high school, she said, it’s not uncommon to see students at school running to the bathroom trying to sneak in a “quick hit.”

Some of her classmates have even started to sell their clothes to support their expensive addiction, Gabby said. The refill cartridges, or pods, for popular devices such as Juuls can cost about $20 each.

Despite the growing crisis, both girls said school administrators have done very little to educate students about the risks of e-cigarettes and nicotine dependence.

They knew they needed to take bolder action.

So when their father, Dr. J. Carter Ralphe, was asked to testify before the House Appropriations Committee on behalf of the American Heart Association, they jumped at the opportunity to share their concerns on Capitol Hill.

Gabby and Sarah met with Wisconsin delegation members Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Rep. Bryan Steil and Rep. Sean Duffy to share their experiences with e-cigs – and to ask for more action to address the problem.

The lawmakers knew e-cigarette use was increasing among youths but were startled to hear it has become such an everyday fixture.

Because e-cigarettes are easy to conceal and can look like USB drives, Gabby said she sees students using e-cigarettes openly, even in classrooms and in the school hallways.

Their eyewitness account to the crisis comes as evidence continues to mount about the long-term health risks of e-cigarettes. In addition to current research on the possible dangers of these products, the FDA is also investigating whether nicotine-induced seizures are a potential side effect of vaping.

Gabby and Sarah left Washington encouraged by their conversations with lawmakers. While they know it will take time for teens to fully understand the risk of e-cigarettes, they also said they can see increased demand for change.

“We need to spread the message and talk to lawmakers if we really want to stop the spread of [e-cigarettes],” said Gabby.

Learn more about the movement for the Tobacco Endgame by joining the AHA’s You’re the Cure grassroots network.

Ralphe Family Visit to Capitol Hill