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Vaping Epidemic Explored at Town Hall

By Jarret Liotta

Vaping is an epidemic among young people and education is the key to combat it, an expert on the subject told a Town Hall meeting tonight.

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Alicia Dahl, senior researcher with the Yale School of Medicine, shows a fake watch that’s really a vaping pod. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com

“They’re gonna do what they want to do,” said Tricia Dahl, senior researcher with the Yale School of Medicine’s Tobacco Research Center in Youth, who also has two children. “It’s everywhere.”

The session, “Vaping: The Youth Epidemic,” was sponsored by the Department of Human Services, Westport Prevention Coalition, and collaborating partners. About 80 people of all ages attended.

In the past year alone vaping has increased among high school students by 78%, Dahl said, and 48% among middle school students.

Participation appears to know no boundaries in terms of student groups — race, economics or age.

“Athletes are vaping on the bus,” she said, before competitions. “There is no one group this is targeting.”

And yet, with $200 million a year being devoted to youth-targeted advertising, as well as colorful packaging and thousands of different flavors of nicotine products — among them Lucky Charms, buttered popcorn and unicorn puke — creating the next generation of nicotine consumers — and addicts — appears a main focus for the industry.

“Right now it is a major epidemic,” Dahl said. “There is not a child out there who is not going to be offered a device at some point.”

“You have to have a plan in place,” she said, beginning with direct education about the drug nicotine and the chemicals used to deliver it with vaping.

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One of the slides from the program “Vaping: The Youth Epidemic.” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com

“For years and years we’ve talked to our kids about tobacco, (but) we never talked to our kids about nicotine,” she said, which as a stimulant has far-reaching physical effects as well as being highly addictive.

“When you vape on a regular basis … it slowly cuts back on the amount of dopamine (your body) produces,” she said — an important brain chemical that helps regulate your moods through positive feelings.

As a person grows addicted to a substance, not only does the body fail to produce dopamine — something that can continue for a long period even after the addictive substance is no longer introduced into the body — but the dopamine receptors in the body can change shape to fit themselves to the addictive chemical and thus become unable to link with natural dopamine, Dahl said.

“Things like attention, memory and learning are all affected by this level of nicotine and those things don’t change back,” she said, noting that once someone is addicted to nicotine it becomes easier for the body to have subsequent addictions.

She recounted some of the history of vaping devices, which have evolved from faux cigarettes to stealthy stainless steel pods purposed for secret use, with technology maximizing the amount of drugs — nicotine or THC oil, the basis of marijuana — through the process.

“It’s not a water vapor at all,” she said, contrary to popular myth, but an oil-based aerosol that goes deep into the lungs and settles there.

One pod from the brand Juul — a popular company now one-third owned by Altria, the parent company for Philip Morris and Nat Sherman — has the nicotine equivalent of about 30 cigarettes.

“We have data that proves that kids are six times more likely to move onto conventional cigarettes when kids start vaping,” Dahl said.

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Kevin Godburn, youth services program director for the town, introduces Alicia Dahl, a Yale School of Medicine researcher. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com

Vaping of THC is also a significant issue, but she said the latest craze is “dabbing” — a process compared to freebasing, which has caused many overdoses. She said that while an old-school marijuana cigarette releases about 15% of the THC content, and the vaping of THC oil releases 60%, the “dab wax” brings out 90%.

Research, she said, definitely shows that a tolerance to this drug is built up with continued use — something she noted necessitated the creation of these more elaborate means of delivering it.

While some countries — including India and Brazil — have banned vaping devices, legislation in the United States is still in process.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg shared briefly about the legislative work being done, including Connecticut’s Gov. Ned Lamont meeting today with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to get on the same page regarding the issue.

“We’re really trying to stamp it out for underage kids,” Steinberg said.

“You are never going to catch up to all the things that are out there,” Dahl told parents, which include a plethora of items created to hide vaping materials. “You don’t even know what you’re looking for.”

“Talk to your kids,” she said. “Talk to them about how to deal with this sort of thing and let them make their own decision.”

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