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Getting Answers: concerns over teen vaping making an unwelcome comeback

As signs of the pandemic subside in the classroom, evidence of a vaping epidemic remains.
Published: May. 2, 2022 at 6:20 PM EDT|Updated: May. 2, 2022 at 7:05 PM EDT
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WEST SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - COVID-19′s toll on education has overshadowed another public health concern for young people: vaping. After a lull during remote learning, educators are worried vaping has made an unwelcome comeback.

As signs of the pandemic subside in the classroom, evidence of a vaping epidemic remains.

“Many of the people do tuck it inside their clothes…and so whenever they have the chance to just go into the bathroom, go into the big stall, hide, and just start doing it,” said high school senior Niyonzima Charmantine, who is also a group leader at the West Springfield Boys and Girls Club.

Seeing this in school only fuels Charmantine’s work at the west springfield boys and girls club.

“I feel like since they see me as being like young, they’re more likely to open up to me and share stuff that they wouldn’t share with people that are older,” Charmantine added.

Her positive influence may be working. The latest survey of West Springfield students shows a dramatic decline in vaping. In 2018, more than a quarter of seniors said they vaped in the last 30 days. That dropped to just over 16 percent in 2021. Just three percent of eighth graders said they vaped in 2021, compared with more than 12 percent in 2018.

While promising, the survey was conducted during a time of increased isolation and decreased access.

“We don’t have current data from this year. What we have been hearing from our administrative team and the students who are using the bathroom with people who vape is that it’s happening again,” said Ananda Lennox, coordinator of the West Springfield Care Coalition.

Lennox said collecting the data and tracking these trends.

“…And when we see students using, it gets younger and younger each year,” Lennox noted.

The CDC said more than two million U.S. middle and high school students reported using e-cigarettes in 2021, with more than eight in 10 using flavored e-cigs. Though Massachusetts and the FDA have restricted flavored vape products, Lennox said manufacturers are a step ahead.

“They’re able to find this loophole where since it’s not nicotine, and it is, it’s just not tobacco-based nicotine, they can still offer it with flavors,” Lennox explained.

The online company, Puffbar, sells e-cigs with names like “strawberry banana” and “blueberry ice” and avoids regulation by using a nicotine formula that doesn’t fall under FDA rules.

“They can get them from anywhere. They can get them on Amazon, stores sell them illegally,” said Jasmine Montanaro.

Montanaro’s teen son struggled with vaping and learned the effects go beyond physical health.

“A few of his friends starting to have with anxiety, depression from so much nicotine, probably,” Montanaro added.

A new study finds vaping can amplify the very same feelings causing Franza Mazimpaka’s classmates to pick up e-cigs in the first place.

“A lot of us had to go through the COVID pandemic by ourselves and I feel like they’re trying to use an outlet and this outlet they find is vaping and though it might be a short-term fix, in the long run, it can impact them physically horribly and mentally,” Mazimpaka said.

Lennox said the link to mental health has to do with how nicotine interacts with the brain.

“What the nicotine delivery is doing is interrupting those symptoms of withdrawal and withdrawal makes you feel anxious and stress and stuff like that,” Lennox noted.

Other symptoms of withdrawal like irritability, stomachaches, and diarrhea can be signs your child is vaping.

“Look for broken chargers because they’ll rip the ends off and charge their vapes. If they smell fruity and say it’s their perfume, it’s most likely not,” Montanaro added.

She said stay informed, have an open-door policy, and like Charmantine is, help kids find a better way to deal with anxiety.

“I think if they come to the Boys and Girls Club, there’s other stuff to take their minds off of that stuff and be better for their health,” Charmantine explained.

Mazimpaka is having an impact too, leading vaping prevention lessons for sixth graders.

“If we’re able to prevent these extra stresses that come with vaping, it can help them a lot,” Mazimpaka said.