Only a few years ago, electronic cigarettes were advertised as a safer way to wean adults off of traditional tobacco cigarettes, but the “e-cig” market has now expanded into a variety of products reaching a surprising demographic: school children.
Franklin Tomorrow’s monthly FrankTalks event featured a panel of local specialists at the Franklin Police Department Monday to discuss the dangers of vapes, Juul and similar products.
The speakers included Franklin Police Department Chief Deborah Faulkner, Williamson Medical Center pulmonary and critical care physician Tufik Assad, Tennessee Department of Health Public Health educators Lyndsey Wilhelm and Brittany Laborde and Williamson County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Brant Pewitt, who oversees all the school resource officers (SROs) in the Williamson County Schools district.
Admitting she is not an expert on vaping, Faulkner took a moment to recognize broader drug use and mental health issues within the community and the world, explaining this new phenomenon feeds into a bigger problem, which is greatly impacting children.
She quoted 42 calls to the police department regarding drug overdose over the last nine months, six of which happened last month. September contained 49 drug investigations and one drug-related death.
These incidents fall across the drug spectrum, Faulkner said, as the department finds evidence of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and fentanyl — an opioid so potent that only 3 milligrams could be deadly. For context, 3 milligrams amounts to about a tenth of a grain of rice.
Faulkner explained these incidents often overlap with mental health issues, something to which Franklin Mayor Ken Moore is attempting to bring more attention. He has formed a blue-ribbon panel of community members, which is currently formulating a plan to bring greater mental health awareness to Franklin citizens.
“Law enforcement is on the threshold of a mental health crisis in this country,” Faulkner said. “The first nine months of this year, Franklin Police Department has had 136 incidents of either suicide threat, attempt or actual.”
The chief mentioned children as young as 9 and 11 years old are threatening or attempting suicide in the Franklin community.
This age group is also largely affected by vaping, a growing concern in the medical community. Assad shared the rising number of what is currently referred to as vaping-associated pulmonary illness — what appears to be a sometimes-life-threatening inflammation of the lungs. There have been over 1,000 cases nationally, 39 of which occurred in Tennessee and seven of which Assad reported himself.
He expressed particular concern over the 16% of cases that occur in patients under 18.
Pewitt explained all WCS SROs are equipped with vape test kits to test for THC — the active ingredient in cannabis — or other illegal drugs. Students under 18 in possession of products containing nicotine or other drugs are reported to juvenile services.
Apart from the known effects of the drugs consumed, researchers are unsure what exactly is causing vaping-associated pulmonary illness. Due to its similarity to pneumonia, some have speculated the illness is due to buildup in the lungs of vitamin E, an oily substance found in many THC vaping products.
Assad explained, though, these effects could result from any number of ingredients — traces of carcinogens, heavy metals and diacetyl, a flavoring chemical known to cause an irritated condition dubbed “popcorn lung,” as the chemical is often found in microwave popcorn.
“It’s not a benign vapor like the name kind of suggests,” he said. “It’s not just taking water and then breathing in liquefied or vaporized water particles. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
Assad also explained that, while most vape products contain a lower concentration of nicotine than traditional cigarettes, Juul products are salt-based and mimic the drug levels of a normal smoke.
While he said he would not recommend these products for adults, either, he is concerned about vape products that appear to target children — liquids flavored like popular sodas, candies and sugary cereals.
Wilhelm explained the younger population is indeed taking advantage of these products. Students she has surveyed reported they’ve observed children as young as 8 inhaling nicotine-infused vapor. According to a 2018–19 study in Williamson County surveying eighth, 10th- and 12th-grade students, children are hardly discouraged by ease of access.
“Only about 9.7% of these students indicated that tobacco products were a very difficult substance to access, and only 44.9% … associated e-cigs and tobacco use being a great risk,” she said. “All that to say, it’s easy for them to get, and they don’t really see that big of a health risk.”
Pewitt confirmed vaping products have already been confiscated within Williamson County middle and high schools this semester.
Some e-cigarette companies have responded to public pressure to discourage child participation. Juul, for instance, has discontinued all its flavors besides tobacco and menthol and has shut down its U.S. social media accounts. Even Walmart recently announced that its stores will no longer carry any e-cigarette products, period.
Wilhelm explained she and Laborde, as health educators, often give presentations about this issue and the health risks associated, inviting people to reach out to host a talk at their organization.
More information about e-cigarettes and drug use can be found on online medical resources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site, cdc.gov. To learn more about future FrankTalks, visit franklintomorrow.org.