With the holidays coming up, one thing at the top of your teen’s Christmas list may be a pen.  No, not your average fancy sharpie, not a red or green Pilot G-2 (my personal favorite); no, we are talking about vape pens.  More and more common among youth, these pens allow one to smoke flavored vape juice, nicotine oil, or THC oil or even heavily concentrated THC products such as wax or shatter.  Kids might even try to convince you that these products are safer because no combustion happens while inhaling the product. It is important for parents to understand that there is no “safer” when it comes to youth marijuana and nicotine use.  So here is a guide to what’s what among pens.  

Let’s start with your basic vape pens:

A vaporizer pen, vape pen or e-cigarette (for purposes of this blog, names will be used interchangeably)  is a small device ranging in size from a standard pen to a larger box with a mouthpiece that one can use to inhale a combination of heated oil (THC, flavored juice or nicotine) and propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin (these create the “smoke”-like vapor and are commonly referred to as VOC’s-more on those later).

A standard vaporizer has three components:

  • A liquid cartridge that contains a combination of a VOC, a flavored oil, nicotine and/or THC oil.  This is commonly called e-juice or e-liquid and is the actual product that is heated to an aerosol and inhaled to produce a high or simply to exhale a puff of vapor
  • A heating element known as the atomizer.
  • A rechargeable battery to power the atomizer.

When a person vapes, they activate the atomizer which then heats up the e-liquid turning it into an aerosol that is slowly inhaled into the lungs and then exhaled.  It is then blown out in varying concentrations of billowing clouds of flavored “smoke”. The amount of product exhaled depends on how much of the VOC is in the cartridge.

Originally developed as an alternative to cigarettes for adults to quit smoking, but to still have a nicotine delivery system, vaping has become increasingly popular among youth for a couple reasons.  First, it is a way to inhale a substance such as nicotine or THC with very little odor. Second, there is a strong culture around vaping use. Just look up “stealth vaping” products or videos on Youtube and you will discover a plethora of ways and products that are available to hide the act of vaping; including a sweatshirt/hoodie string that has a built in vape devise.  Finally, for kids who do not want to drink or use drugs, vaping non-THC and non-nicotine products allows kids to have an identity of “doing something bad” without the risk of becoming what they would consider intoxicated or addicted.

However….in a recent NBC news article that cited new youth vaping research, many kids may not realize they’re vaping an addictive substance such as nicotine or THC.  New reports suggest that more than 25 percent of youth claimed they vaped “just flavoring” in the past year, up from 20.6 percent in 2017. However, most vaping products contain nicotine and Juul, by far the most popular e-cigarette product among youth, does not offer nicotine-free flavors.  So if youth are vaping with a Juul product, it is extremely likely that they are inhaling a significant amount of nicotine along with their strawberry flavoring.

So, what about Juuls?

Like a traditional e-cigarette or vaping pen, Juuls have all of the same components but have a very sophisticated marketing approach.  The parent company of Juul is PAX Labs which was founded in 2007 “with the goal of creating responsible, enjoyable, and personalized experiences for cannabis.”  PAX labs currently creates and manufactures cannabis vaping products described as being “superior, beautiful and technologically advanced products that disrupt and redefine the future of smoking… products that are not only more effective but also those that consumers can relate to: pleasurable, beautiful experiences”.  In 2015, Pax labs turned their successful cannabis vaporizing system into a nicotine delivery system and named it Juul. Less than three years later, Juul became the most popular e-cigarette in the United States, with a market share of 72% as of September, 2018.

The appeal of Juul products, for adults and youth alike, is their sleek and discrete style as well as the variety of flavored oils that are combined with nicotine.  Sounds pretty sexy but make no mistake about it, a typical Juul cartridge has as much addiction forming nicotine in it as a pack of cigarettes and a Juul starter kit can be ordered online by clicking on a button that says “I am 21 years old….” for $49.99.

The other thing about Juuls is that the cartridge that originally contains the flavored nicotine oil can be replaced with THC oil, thus effectively turning the e-cig into a device that can be used to discreetly inhale THC oil.  All it takes is a quick Youtube search on how to put THC oil in a Juul pod to transform this popular product into a THC delivery system.

So, what’s the harm?  MEI looks at youth vaporizer or e-cig use as harmful on three different levels:

  • The product in the vape pen or e-cig that creates the “vapor” or aerosol is usually propylene glycol or vegetable glycerine, which are classified as Volatile Organic Compounds that are safe in small quantities for ingestion but have not been deemed safe for inhaling into the lungs.  In fact, a 2018 study released by the American Academy of Pediatrics determined that urine tests of teens who vaped showed elevated levels of FIVE different toxins in their bodies when compared to the urine tests of teens who did not vape. Inhaling anything into the lungs that is not clean air or needed medication is not healthy for the lungs.  
  • For youth that think that using a vape pen is a safer choice, it is essential to understand that almost all vape devices have a combination of VOCs, nicotine, THC or a flavored oil that may contain a harmful chemical called diacetyl that has been known to cause a condition called “popcorn lung”.  If youth are inhaling nicotine than the likelihood of an addiction to nicotine is significant and a youth user may then turn to cigarettes to get that nicotine fix. If youth are inhaling flavored oils from unknown sources (often bought at corner gas stations and online) they are introducing harmful chemicals such as diacetyl and VOCs into their lungs.  There is no safe inhalation.
  • If youth are caught with a vape pen or e-cig at school, they could face a harsh penalty as several school districts operate under the assumption that possession of a vape pen automatically implies possession of marijuana.  This is because it is difficult and expensive to determine what type if oil is in a vape cartridge and schools often work under the assumption that the cartridge or pod contains THC oil which leads to students getting penalized as if they are in possession of marijuana on school grounds.  This can lead to severe consequences which can include an out-of-school suspension, a Minor in Possession, or suspension from sports, theater or debate teams.

Marijuana Education Initiative likes to ensure that parents, youth and educators are informed and empowered to make safe and healthy choices this holiday season.  Please be on the lookout for our online vaping module coming out in early 2019!

Sources and resources:

More teens vaping and thinking its nicotine free

https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/more-teens-are-vaping-many-think-it-s-nicotine-free-n948251

Popcorn lung information

https://www.lung.org/about-us/blog/2016/07/popcorn-lung-risk-ecigs.html

Nicotine addiction among kids who vape

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/16/health/vaping-juul-teens-addiction-nicotine.html

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