Facts or Fearmongering?

At the end of May, 2018, I was visiting a middle school that we serve. They use our anti-bullying curriculum, Engage:  An Active Response to Bullying, as part of a district-wide initiative to address this critical issue. Engage is the official program of the district and I always want to keep in touch with those educators who are dealing with this problem on the front lines to see how culture change is happening and how hearts are transforming to promote kindness and compassion.

As I entered the main area, the assistant principal invited me into his office. He had just confronted several middle school students who were caught vaping at school. This phenomenon has become a real problem for educators as the devices now used – called Juuls -  are small and look like USB “thumb” drives so are easily concealed. I had heard of these things before and we talked about how best to combat this growing problem.

Later that evening, I did some research into this dangerous trend in schools. Vaping, according to the experts, has a higher concentration of nicotine than “regular” cigarettes and, because of the nature of inhaling these chemicals (yes, they are mixed with water, so those pushing vaping like to refer to the “juice” as “water”), there is concern of lung disease and cancer. This is due, in part, to the VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds – found in highly elevated levels, especially in the fruit-flavored products designed to entice young people. You can find just one of the articles here:  https://www.webmd.com/smoking-cessation/news/20180305/kids-who-vape-face-toxin-dangers-study-finds#1 .  Some researchers believe that vaping actually is more dangerous than smoking cigarettes because young people perceive the habit as harmless so are more likely to take up the habit and become addicted. This is not to say that regular cigarettes are safer than e-cigs, just that the dangers of vaping are not appreciated, especially by the younger generation. Very young children have been severely harmed by simply touching the containers of “juice” that are put into the e-cigs to create the vapor.

Both of my parents died of lung cancer from smoking even though they kicked the habit shortly after I was born. I remember, as a child, going to restaurants and other public areas that were filled with smoke from cigarettes. In 2012, my husband (a professor at a local university) and I took a group of college students to study abroad in Europe and I was surprised at the elevated number of people there that I saw smoking traditional cigarettes. Smoking regular cigarettes is still a problem even as the new e-cigs enter the arena.

Overall, we are getting better as we recognize the detrimental, and sometimes fatal, effects of putting these things in our bodies. The saddest part is that it is the youngest of us who suffer the most, either by not understanding the risks and feeling invincible, or through the actions of the adults in their lives exposing them to this health hazard.

My parents didn’t get to see their grandchildren grow up and have children of their own. My dad didn’t live past my oldest attending 4th grade. And they quit many years prior…but the damage had been done.

When I posted about this phenomenon on social media, a well-meaning former student of mine said that while he didn’t vape himself, he actively encouraged others to because “the dangers are still not completely known or understood” (his exact words) so “it is safer than ‘real’ smoking.” He went on to express concern that “fear mongering” about vaping might cause some people not to pick up the habit. Curious, I asked him to explain what he thought fear mongering was. He elaborated that sharing the facts about vaping might cause some to fear the habit. I responded that fear mongering was actually exaggerating facts in order to deceive and then asked him if we should stay silent on the danger. I mean, nobody accuses an airplane pilot of fearmongering when he comes on the intercom and states “Please remain in your seats with your seatbelts fastened as we may encounter some turbulence.” The pilot is simply suggesting that people should remain buckled because he has become aware of the fact that weather they are flying through might cause the airplane to pitch in the air. Most people appreciate being warned, and, actually might become upset if they were caught unaware when things got bumpy. My former student smiled and shrugged and didn’t have a lot to say in return when I suggested that perhaps we should wait to encourage a habit until we knew, for sure, that it was safe. Some young people, probably at least partly due to a lack of life experience, just cannot seem to fully appreciate the dangers of these types of habits.

The jury is still out on the full effects of vaping, to be sure, because it hasn’t been a fad long enough for us to have any longitudinal studies on the negative impact. Until then, it is important that we help our young people understand what the proven dangers are, and what still has yet to be uncovered. In the end, it is just good advice to not put anything in your body that doesn’t have any positive benefit.

So, let’s keep sharing the facts – and, of course, be careful not to exaggerate so we don’t discredit the message – and help our young people avoid these dangerous habits when they are too young to fully appreciate what they might be doing.

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