Clearing the smoke: Taking a look inside world of teen vaping

Young vapers scoff at potential side effects as doctors sound alarm

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called teen vaping an epidemic, forcing the industry to make some changes under the threat of having certain products pulled off the market.

According to the FDA, vaping has increased 80 percent in high school students and 50 percent among middle school students since last year.

Even though it's illegal for someone younger than 18 to vape, it's happening all around us -- sometimes right in front of teachers and parents who don't have a clue it's taking place.

News4Jax went to Instagram to find young people who vape and would be willing to talk about it. That's where we found Jared Roney.

WATCH: Vaping increase among high school students

Roney has been vaping since he was 17 years old. Like many young people, Roney said he was attracted to the ease and coolness of vaping -- and the sweet flavors, which can taste and smell like candy.

"I tried it with my friend and he had multiple flavors, like pink lemonade, chocolate, banana nut and all these other ones," Roney said. "When I tried it, I loved it. The flavors were phenomenal."

Roney is now 19 and considers himself a "vape god." He has a large collection of mods, the devices used to vape, and juices that are worth hundreds of dollars. Some of the mods talk to him and respond to commands or play music and light up.

Roney said vaping has always been easy, even when he was underage.

"I would end up going online, forging my birthdate, saying it was '95 instead of '99. I'd be able to get all that I wanted with juice or just the mod," Roney said. "It would work. They would send it to me. They would think I was 18 or older, and I'd be able to get the mod with nobody even knowing that I was 17."

Vaping is now something Roney doesn't think he can live without. He said he thinks he'll be vaping forever.

"Sadly enough, I do think so," Roney said. "It's just a bad habit of mine. I've just grown addicted to it."

Despite his admitted addiction, Roney said he's not concerned about any health risks associated with vaping.

"The misconception is vaping is as bad as smoking," Roney said. "Well, that's the wrong thing about it, because there's only four chemicals in the bottle and they're listed."

But some doctors aren't as confident about the safety of vaping.

"It doesn't have the direct carcinogens as far as the tar," Dr. Alexis Vazquez said. "That said, we don't know the long-term affects on the brain and the different molecules. What happens when you bring them up to those temperatures and burn them into the lungs?"

Vazquez, a pulmonologist at Memorial Hospital, said it's what we don't know about vaping that worries him.

"There are a lot of concerns. I always go back to cigarettes. When cigarettes first came out, they came to the general public and they said, 'There's nothing wrong with smoking.' We used to smoke in the operating room and our patients' rooms," Vazquez said. "We didn't think anything was wrong with it, and my concern is, 20 years from now, when we look back at these and say, 'Wow, we didn't see that one.' That's my main concern."

Vazquez worries it's going to take five to 10 years to really get a handle on the true side effects of vaping. He believes that, by then, there might already be another generation hooked on something it believed was harmless.

Negative side effects

According to the American Lung Association, a condition called popcorn lung has been associated with a chemical found in many e-cigarette flavors.

Popcorn lung scars the tiny air sacs in the lungs, causing thickening and narrowing of the airways.

It causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, similar to the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

The chemical responsible, diacetyl, is added to some e-juice liquid to enhance the flavoring.

The condition got its name because the chemical was found in buttery flavored microwave popcorn. It's since been removed from popcorn but has resurfaced in e-cigarette flavoring.

Vazquez said the ingredients aren't the only concern.

“This new generation is vaping nonstop,” Vazquez said. “It's a huge, huge percentage of the youth population, and it does come with the side effects. It's directly associated with ADD (attention deficit disorder). It's directly associated with insulin resistance, which can cause diabetes.”

He's also concerned that vapers will eventually become smokers or do both.

Vazquez said that nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs that we've ever encountered. He said it's more addictive than heroin, and it just makes you keep coming back.

But young vapers, such as Roney, often think any side effects from vaping are a better alternative than smoking.

"The thing is not harmful to secondhand people who are inhaling it. It doesn't leave a bad smell on me or in my vehicle," Roney said. "It just smells nice. It tastes good, and it's not bad for any other people around me."

What parents can do

Parents have probably the most important role in keeping their teens from vaping, and it starts with a simple conversation, experts say.

Vaping should now be added to the list of uncomfortable conversations to be had between parents and children -- along with drugs, alcohol and “the birds and the bees.”

And experts say the vaping conversation probably needs to happen way sooner than the parent or guardian might be expecting.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 16.2 percent of 12th-graders will use e-cigarettes compared to 9.5 percent of eighth-graders. That shows children are thinking about e-cigarettes way sooner than the legal age of 18.

A savvy parent, early on, can make sure that he or she is helping shape what their child learns about e-cigarettes, experts say.

The same study from NIDA found that 7 in 10 teens are exposed to e-cigarete advertisements and 66 percent think it's just flavoring, and not the nicotine that can become addictive.

That's where moms and dads can step in and provide the facts, counselor Lori Osachy said.

“I think you have to create teaching moments instead of giving them 'the talk,' when kids are most likely to tune you out or roll their eyes or get up and walk away,” said Osachy, with The Body Image Counseling Center. “You really can, if you see it on television, or if you see their friends vaping, or a parent vaping -- so if you see someone else -- you can bring it up. 'You know, that's not really healthy,' or, 'What do you know about it?' Instead of lecturing them, ask your kids what do they know about it.”

Osachy said it's naive to think your kids don't know about e-cigarettes, so don't hesitate or wait until it's too late.

She said children are smart, and once you start to educate them about the facts or product placement in advertisements, they might choose not to vape for their own good.

She also suggested practicing your reaction, in case your child admits to trying or using electronic cigarettes, because if you blow up, it might discourage them from talking with you about it in the future.

Also, she added, grounding them for a year doesn't work.

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