Vaping Concerns & Perspectives Expressed; Community Forum Planned

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Story by Sara Paul

     The issue of underage use of products related to vaping has come to the forefront in Warwick with parents, students, educators, medical experts and business owners all having unique opinions and observations on what is being called, by some, an epidemic.

     With a community forum slated for Mon., Mar. 2 at 7 p.m. in the Warwick Valley Middle School, located at 225 West St. in Warwick, the Warwick Valley Dispatch gathered some information from a range of sources to provide some perspective and background on this local and global conversation.

     The forum is a combined effort of the principals of Warwick Valley High School, Middle School and S.S. Seward Institute in Florida and will feature keynote speaker MaryAlice Kovatch, Prevention Coordinator with the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Council of Orange County, who will share significant details about e-cigarettes, vapes and the threat posed to the health of students.

National Statistics

     “As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a nationwide study, 27.5% of high schoolers and 10.5% of middle schoolers admitted to using electronic cigarettes in 2019.  It would be naive to think that doesn’t apply in Warwick,” said Jeffrey Horowitz MD, FAAP
Pediatrician and medical officer of Warwick Valley Schools.

     “Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances available. Another name for an electronic cigarette is electronic nicotine delivery system. Nicotine can harm brain development, impact learning, memory and attention and increase the risk of future addiction,” said Dr. Horowitz. “One third of students that use electronic cigarettes use marijuana in the device. Substance abuse continues to be problem that damages lives and devastates families. Also, according to the CDC 38% of twelfth graders use illicit drugs, 11.5% use drugs other than marijuana.”

     Annie Colonna, the Director of Prevention Services at the Warwick Valley Community Center, said, “I believe it’s very serious. In the Youth Development survey taken in the 2018-19 school year, 48.42% of 12th graders reported vaping at least once. 30.81% were currently vaping, with almost 20% vaping more than 10 times in the last 30 days. Maybe more troubling was that the eighth graders, today’s ninth grade class, reported high rates of vaping. In the previous 30 days, 21.16% reported vaping, with almost 10% vaping more than ten times a month.”

A ‘Normal Thing’ for Teens

     A high school senior in Warwick reported that the problem persists amongst her peers, both inside and outside of school.

     “It’s really just kind of like a normal thing. I haven’t researched this, but it’s like in the 1950s when kids smoked. Vaping is the new normal. I know at parties it’s a big thing,” she said, adding that the students are using the devices in classrooms and locker rooms as well and are “sneaky with it.”

     “One person uses it, and then hands it off to someone else, and it’s undetected. Our school knows they do it but they can’t catch them unless they have it out,” she observed.

     The teen offered her explanation for the growing use.

     “One person does it and then it spreads to the group because others want to try it. One of my friends started doing it because she’s in a school club and they all do it,” noted the Warwick resident, who reports she does not vape at all.

     “It’s really gross, plus they share the devices, and that’s just nasty,” she said.

Business Owners Acting Responsibly

     In the Village of Warwick, Beverage Plus Beer & Smoke Shop owner for 16 years Nayant Patel says he does not have instances of underage sales or inquiries from minors.

     “I don’t even give matches to people under 21. We’re so strict. The last time I saw a fake ID was 10 years ago, and I cut it up right in front of the kid,” said Patel, whose shop sells regular vape products, nothing flavored.

     Another local businessman, Ryan Hallisey, owner of Priority Vape, agrees that underage individuals don’t look to his shop as one where they can utilize fake identification (ID), or even visibly coerce friends or parents to buy for them.

     “It’s well known that my shop does not accept fake IDs, but I do know of other local stores that do… I almost got physical with a man who admitted to attempting to buy for his 15-year-old stepdaughter,” said Hallisey, 32, who claims that the number one access point for vape related products is friends and family.

     He is also aware of the availability of fake identification for youth.

     “There are big fake ID problems,” Ryan said, observing that the most common IDs indicate the holder is from Pennsylvania, Delaware, or Connecticut and can be easily purchased online from upwards of $60.

     The Warwick teenage girl commented, “The students are very creative with ways to purchase. Sometimes they’re overpaying others to get it for them, or they know the cashiers. It’s weird because I have heard some parents know so maybe they ask their parents.”

     Well versed in his business and the issues surrounding vaping, Warwick resident Hallisey argues, “We need the truth right now, not lies and exaggerations. The only thing people are talking about right now is vaping, when the number one cause of preventable death and disease in the US is cigarette smoking.”

     Hallisey’s shop, located at 5 First St. in the Village of Warwick, does not sell cigarettes, rather a wide variety of nicotine related products, most of which are meant to aid in the physical struggle with cigarette addiction, according to Hallisey.

     “It’s an effective way to quit smoking, and the smoking rate is, in fact, declining at its fastest rates ever nationally,” said Hallisey, who keeps abreast of pertinent research from such organizations as the CDC, the American Lung Association, and the American Medical Association, though he does question the validity of much of what he reads.

     Priority Vape shop associate Amir Gombiner adds that, “Vape shops want to provide a healthier alternative to smoking, and store owners are generally concerned about public health… so why the stigma now of us supposedly selling poison?”

     Hallisey declares, “I don’t want kids using, and I could sell this place tomorrow, but I stay open for my customers. My grandmother died at 49 of lung cancer, and these alternative products can help fight that disease.”

     He also brings up that, “The CDC removed the clarifying question in the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey data of what exactly are these kids vaping? Vaping is a delivery mechanism, like a syringe filled with heroin; what its contents are matters.”

     No stranger to problems amongst local youth, Annie Colonna confirms, “We are not always sure what the student is vaping. It could be nicotine. It could be marijuana. It could be something else.”

Educators Attempting to Address Situation

     With the knowledge of the challenges of the vaping issue and its potential dangers, school officials say they are doing what they can to protect the health of all students.

     Michael Rheaume, Principal of S.S. Seward Institute, commented, “Like all schools, vaping has quickly become a health concern that has impacted many of our kids.  It is difficult to stop because it is hard to detect.”

     According to Rheaume a key focus currently is, “… mostly education of parents, students and community members.  Many do not know how unhealthy and addictive vaping is.  We are working with Warwick schools to hold an information session for caregivers and we have been very upfront with our kids in educating them.”

     “Vaping has become a health issue that is difficult to deal with.  Kids quickly find themselves addicted due to the large amount of nicotine in the cartridges they use. It has impacted every age of student, and we will remain very vigilant in supervising school in order to decrease student usage. We are exploring how we might offer nicotine addiction programs to help kids stop vaping,” Rheaume stated.

     In a recent informative piece on the Warwick Valley Central School District website, several administrators commented on the topic. Warwick Valley Middle School Principal Georgianna Diopoulos also shared that, “As our students get older, it is more socially acceptable to use drugs and alcohol.  It is perceived as ‘cooler’ and helps kids deal with stress when they use substances.”

     Warwick High School Principal Marguerite Fusco noted that she has held faculty meetings to educate teachers about the dangers of vaping.  She and her administrative team have implemented changes in practice so that students who are caught vaping must take a three-hour online course about the dangers of vaping in addition to serving a school consequence.

     WVCSD Superintendent of Schools Dr. David Leach stated, “Drug and alcohol use by our students is unacceptable. Our comprehensive approach to drug and alcohol prevention hinges on strong K-12 curricula, educational prevention programs, parent outreach, and substance abuse counseling.  When a student is using drugs, he or she needs a host of strategies aimed to promote a healthy lifestyle.”

     In a recent interview, Annie Colonna expressed that, “I think a big step forward has been recognizing that students who are repeatedly caught vaping may have a substance use disorder (SUD). High school students who are repeatedly caught vaping are now required to complete a SUD program called Teen Intervene, run by the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Council in Goshen. Teen Intervene will access the student to see if the student has an SUD. If so, they will refer the student to treatment. Otherwise, they will work with the student to recognize the negative consequences vaping may be having on their lives.”

     “On the middle school level, we are stepping up prevention education and awareness by sponsoring events and being a resource for students and teachers,” Colonna said.

     Bianca Sabogal, parent of a seventh grader, who is involved in Students Against Destructive Decisions in the school and the Youth Task Force at the community center, said “As a parent, it’s pretty scary because so many of our youth are getting hooked on a substance at a very young age. I’m worried that it may lead to more addicting tendencies later in life. At the same time, it is comforting know that Warwick is a very pro active community and school district. They really address the problems and face them head on. I’m very grateful for the various clubs, programs, and opportunities Warwick has for our kids to go out there and make a difference for their peers.”

The Bigger Picture

     “Addressing individual drug epidemics is like playing Whack-a-Mole. Something else is bound to pop up. What we need to address is why people are using at such high rates, whether it’s alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, opiates, vaping or whatever.  We are at historically high levels of use across the nation. Something is not right. Recognizing the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on adult use and how adults influence youth use is a first step,” Colonna explains.

     Dr. Horowitz simply and clearly urges, “It is so important to convince young people not to do self-destructive things.”

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