Mark Pristash was introduced to e-cigarettes in seventh grade. A New York City resident at the time, he and his friends would buy them, and reusable cartridges, from a nearby store that would “sell anything to anyone at any age,” he said.
Pristash moved to Orange and started his freshman year at Orange High School. He didn’t start vaping regularly until the fall of his junior year, when the phenomenon gained nationwide popularity. The following summer, he realized he had a problem.
“Throughout the summer it was getting expensive and I just felt that I was not healthy,” he said. “I tried to quit, and I would only go a day or two without it. Then I would just buy a new one.”
He said some of his friends, who were also trying to quit vaping, would throw their Juul, a popular vaping device brand, “out their car or throw it out their balcony.” When he attempted the same methods, his success in doing so was only temporary.
In September of his senior year, Pristash went to his school’s psychologist to ask for help in quitting vaping.
“I couldn’t do it by myself,” he said.
Putting it in perspective
Struggles like those faced by Pristash are increasingly common as e-cigarette use, more commonly known as vaping or “Juuling,” has grown in popularity. It’s a relatively new phenomenon but one that’s gripping a generation. Only 5.4% of teenagers reported smoking cigarettes in 2017 but 12% said they used vaping products, according to Addiction Resource, a Seattle-based organization that seeks to help those recovering from addiction.
Locally, the Summit County Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported in May that 42% of about 18,000 area middle school and high school students said they’ve used e-cigarettes compared to 26% who’ve used tobacco. The same survey reported 46% of students have used alcohol.
Vaping has recently made national headlines as studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations have shown the nicotine in e-cigarettes can damage adolescent development just like traditional cigarettes. And, more than 1,600 people across the country have become ill from a vaping-related illness as of Oct. 28, including 34 patients who died, according to the CDC. Those cases are thought to be related to THC-containing products.
Dr. Lolita McDavid, a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, said vaping can damage the brain, heart and lungs just as smoking would, because of the nicotine present.
“A lot of kids think it has no consequences,” she said. “Things that they put in (vaping pipes), that’s what attracts kids. It’s the flavor, and then they get addicted to the nicotine.”
The nicotine in e-cigarettes can hamper adolescent brain development into one’s mid-20s, and those who vape at a young age might be more likely to turn to cigarettes in the future, according to the CDC.
Pristash said when talking to other high school students, to put in perspective how damaging vaping can be, he likens it to cigarettes in the 1960s.
“(People) thought there was nothing wrong with it,” he said. “They were smoking inside buildings, and everywhere they went, and there was this whole generation of people that got hooked on cigarettes.”
Advice for teens, parents
Talking with fellow students about the realities of vaping became a mission for Pristash. Along with his school psychologist and school counselor, he established a new anti-substance abuse club at Orange High School called About Control, or ABC.
“We were all really motivated to form a group (in which) people could just talk about issues and not be judged, and whatever type of questions they had could be answered,” he said.
Initially, he brought a couple friends to ABC club meetings. Eventually, it started meeting every Thursday in the school’s media center. By the school’s third lunch period of the day, 15 to 16 students were usually in attendance, Pristash said.
At the meetings, information is presented on harmful substances and accompanying videos are shared. Attendees discuss coping skills for quitting and 10 minutes at the end of the meetings are set aside for students to share their own stories and struggles.
Having successfully quit vaping, Pristash advises younger students to take advantage of their middle or high school’s resources.
“I feel like once you’re out of the school environment and on your own, it might be hard to find help when you’re looking for it,” he said. “Maybe you’re on your own, maybe you don’t know where to go, but if you’re in a school setting, you can … find someone to talk to and ask them what you can do from there.”
McDavid said parents should know what a vape pen looks like – some are easy for teens to hide since they look like, and are as small as, USB drives – and be wary if their children develop a chronic cough, which could be attributed to nicotine ingestion. She also said parents should talk to their children about vaping.
“You’re the parent,” she said. “If you thought your child was underage drinking or doing drugs, you would intervene, so it’s OK to intervene. And then you can pull information and sit down with them and say, ‘This is why,’ because they don’t understand the nature of the addiction to nicotine. … You want them to be healthy, and it’s not good for them.”
Publisher’s note: This story first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Balanced Family, a sister magazine of the Cleveland Jewish News.