‘I want to know that I’m healthy’: Two local students on starting — and quitting — vaping

A Juul pod carton found crushed in the Iowa City West High School parking lot. — Natalie Dunlap/Little Village

Although e-cigarettes were allegedly created to help adults give up their smoking habits, they quickly became a starter pack for young people to consume nicotine. Offering flavors such as watermelon, mango and mint, e-cigarette suppliers have been accused of enticing young people with their product.

Several states and major cities have restricted or outright banned vaping, and Juul, a company dominating the e-cigarette market, has limited access to its fruit-flavored vape pods seen as targeting young people. On Thursday, Juul also decided to halt sales of its mint-flavored pods, after recent studies found that mint was the most popular flavor among high school Juul users. The studies, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), also found more than half of teens who vape, vape Juul products.

Despite increased rates of vaping-related illnesses — most caused by illicit THC vaping products, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — including 43 cases of respiratory illness in Iowa, and a poll showing 52 percent of American support a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, Governor Kim Reynolds has said she doesn’t plan to prohibit vaping in the state.

According to the JAMA study, 27.5 percent of high school students have vaped in the last 30 days. The vaping trend among teenagers has led many young people to get hooked, but now, as more information on nicotine addiction is coming out, some of these former consumers are making an effort to quit.

Ryan Gamble, a University of Iowa freshman, started vaping the summer after his junior year at Iowa City West High School.

“I actually was on a trip with friends and one of them was doing it and I tried it, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is really nice.’ And for me, I kind of liked the fact of having a buzz and just how I guess nicotine made me feel,” Gamble said. “When I was stressed, it could calm me down a little bit. Just like if you were to smoke a cig.”

Before he turned 18 and was able to buy them himself, Gamble would get Juul pods through his friends.

In high school, he vaped more when he was stressed out. Gamble recalls one day during second trimester finals when he was nervous about school and friend drama, he went through a pod and a half. Usually a pod would last him three days.

As more reporting was done on vaping, Gamble grew concerned about his habits.

“I don’t want to be using it so much that I do get sick,” he said. “I don’t want popcorn lung, or shortness of breath … I want to know that I’m healthy.”

The CDC reported that as of Nov. 7, e-cigarettes have led to more than 2,000 cases of lung injury and 39 deaths in 24 states.

Gamble said he didn’t want to be dependent on nicotine. He gave his e-cigarette to his boyfriend so he wouldn’t have access to it whenever he wants.

“If I have it and if it’s in my presence, and it’s easy for me to get it, then I will struggle with it,” Gamble said. “But for now, I have my boyfriend holding on to it. So I can’t just [vape] anytime I want to go get it.”

Gamble said he still occasionally uses his boyfriend’s Juul when he’s with him. Since limiting his intake, Gamble said he’s more inclined to take his prescribed medications for anxiety and ADHD.

“Now when I am anxious, instead of hitting a Juul, I can just take my anxiety medication, because I wasn’t using that stuff and now I am,” Gamble said.

Brenna (a pseudonym — she asked not to be named), a current West High junior, had a brief relationship with Juuling. This past summer, she was offered a Juul by her friends, and she gave it a try. The friend group she was with — who she has since drifted away from — would drink and smoke. Jane didn’t want to participate in that, so vaping seemed like a happy medium.

“I wanted to be able to fit in, because the friend group that I hung out with then definitely thought it was cool,” she said. “They were kind of more towards that, like, drinking and doing a bunch of drugs, but I didn’t want to get anywhere near those.”

Brenna vaped for two weeks, taking hits once or twice a day, but not necessarily every day. In this short period of time, she noticed her breathing was affected during her athletic practices.

“It felt like I couldn’t hold as much air in my lungs,” she said.

This side effect, plus research she had done on Juuling, led her to decide to ditch the habit.

Anti-vaping posters are taped to bathroom doors at West High School. — Natalie Dunlap/Little Village

To dissuade e-cigarette use, West High recently put up posters from The Real Cost (the FDA’s anti-vaping campaign) on the doors of bathrooms — a popular hideaway for students to get a few hits in. Brenna said she knows some people have stopped vaping as more information about it has been published, and an increasing amount of people have gotten sick or died in vaping-related incidences. Other peers, she says, don’t care about the news coming out.

“Some people just think it’s some fake news,” she said.

Gamble has observed that vaping culture is less intense at the University of Iowa than it was at West High when he was there. Only one other person on Gamble’s dorm floor vapes regularly, and he knows many of his peers are trying to quit.

Similar to Brenna, Gamble said the main reason he started was that everyone around him was doing it.

“It just makes me feel stupid and irresponsible,” he said. “And I’m just kind of at the point where it’s like, ‘Yeah, this is dumb, I’m going to stop.’”

Natalie Dunlap is a student at Iowa City West High School, and a Little Village intern.

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