Hidden in plain sight, e-cigs complicate efforts to cut teen tobacco use


E-cigarettes that look like USB flash drives are making it harder for adults to crack down on their illegal use among minors – even in school hallways.

Shacel De La Vega, a 2018 graduate of Coronado High School in El Paso, said it wasn’t hard to get a nicotine boost almost any time on campus using Juuls, slim vaping devices that are the size of a data stick.

“Other than just letting us know that it was not allowed, there wasn’t really any sort of system that they had set up to stop us from using it,” De La Vega said.

While still in school, De La Vega missed the optional presentation educators gave to students about vaping. Students were told that underage possession of tobacco products is against the law and the school would be cracking down on campus use.

“We’re seeing e-cigs and vapors coming into students’ possession. We want to inform them that it is against the law for students under the age of 18 to possess these tobacco products,” said EPISD Police Officer Chris Rodriguez.

“We’re trying prevent them from getting into trouble and also letting them know that this can affect their health. We hope this gets students to say no to vaping or prevents a purchase.”

E-cigarettes have been the most popular tobacco product among middle and high school students since 2014 according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food and Drug Administrations’ (FDA) National Youth Tobacco Survey in 2017. Vaping among high school students increased “an astounding” 900 percent from 2011 to 2015 according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Surgeon General.

Last June, the Centers for Disease Control reported that overall tobacco use was down among U.S. minors, but among the 3.6 million tobacco product teen users in 2017, a total of 2.1 million used e-cigarettes.

“We’re encouraged by the recent declines in overall youth tobacco use; however, we must do more to address the disturbingly high number of youth who are using e-cigarettes,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. in a press release for CDC Newsroom.

The appeal of the Juul among teenagers can be broken down to three main factors: design, emission and flavors.

Because its Juuls look like a USB flash drive and don’t emit a large amount of vapor, teens are easily able to hide it from parents and teachers. Juul pods of nicotine liquid come in a variety of appealing flavors like mango, cool mint, fruit medley, cool cucumber and crème brulee. Juul Labs also makes Virginia tobacco, classic tobacco and classic menthol flavored pods, but the sweet flavors that are the most popular among young people.

Not everyone gets away with it all the time on school campus. De La Vega remembers a number of instances where students were caught with Juuls. In one case, educators used Snapchat to track down students who were trying to discreetly sell Juul vapes and pods to classmates. The students used the “Our Story” feature of Snapchat, which made their videos viewable by anyone near their location.

“There was always some sort of Juul related story and anyone in or around Coronado could see it. Everyone had Snapchat, including teachers” De La Vega said. “It wasn’t hard to figure out who was selling by their usernames.”

Eddy Frayre works at a convenience store down the street from Franklin High School in El Paso. He has watched the growth in popularity in e-cigarettes and said he has regular customers that come in exclusively for Juul pods.

“I do see a lot of young people from 18-25 coming in and buying the Juuls. Cucumber is the one that sells the most out of all of them but we ALWAYS ask for ID,” Frayre said.

However, even if students who are 18 can legally purchase vape products, possession of them on campus could still lead to potential disciplinary action from the school.

While schools are on the front lines trying to limit e-cigarrette use, they’re getting some back up from allies who have been working to curtail all tobacco use in the El Paso, Juarez and Southern New Mexico.


A Smoke-free Paso del Norte is an initiative aimed at decreasing smoking rates among adults and adolescents in the Paso del Norte region. El Paso saw a dramatic decrease in smoking rates since it became the first city in Texas to adopt a Clean Air Ordinance in 2002. According to the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation, “when the ordinance was implemented, the adult smoking rate was 24 percent. As of 2015, this rate declined to 13.8 percent, well ahead of the national rate of 17.5 percent.”

Last year, the Smoke-free Paso del Norte program launched a series of public service messages targeting special population groups, including teens and e-cigarette users.

The FDA has also taken action to examine the youth appeal of the Juul and other e-cigarettes and announced in September a plan to make e-cigarettes less appealing to youth.

“In the coming weeks, we’ll take additional action under our Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan to immediately address the youth access to, and the appeal of, these products,” said FDA Commissioner Gottlieb in a press release.

Actions could include limiting flavors and designs that appeal to young people as well as making sure that all products are properly labeled to prevent underage children from exposure to nicotine.

The FDA conducted an unannounced visit to the headquarters of Juul Labs in September, leaving with more than 1,000 documents related to the companies’ sales and marketing practices in order to determine whether or not Juul was specifically targeting teenagers in their marketing.

This month, Gottlieb shared letters he sent to Juul and its partner Altria, the maker of Marlborough cigarettes, questioning their commitment to prevent teen vaping. Gottlieb requested a meeting to discuss the implications of this new partnership with a major tobacco company.

“JUUL should be prepared to explain how this acquisition by Altria affects the commitments you made to the FDA about addressing the crisis of youth use ofJUUL products,” Gottlieb wrote.



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