The fruity smell associated with vape pens is a new normal in schools across Michigan, including Belding High School, east of Grand Rapids. That’s despite it being banned by its administration.
Vaping is the act of inhaling a liquid — often nicotine — heated inside a device such as an e-cigarette or Juul. Due to friendly designs such as its fruity taste and sleek appearance, researchers say that vape pens are severely underestimated.
Belding High School principal Michael Ostrander says vaping has become a serious problem here, and in high schools across the state. He says staff confiscates vaping tools almost every week – sometimes a dozen in a month. It’s even the new currency in schools – kids trade vaping tools for other things like help on homework.
“We’ve reached a point where I believe it’s an epidemic and we’ve waited too long,” he says.
Vaping has been one of the biggest annual jumps in substance use in the country— even outweighing marijuana use. A University of Michigan study says that there are 1.3 million more high school users in 2018 than there were in 2017.
Andrew Schepers of the American Cancer Society says the products need to be regulated and treated like tobacco – like they are on the federal level.
“We would rather fall on the side of define them as a tobacco product. So that we are trying to provide some protection for the public than just trying to kind of piece-meal something together,” Schepers says.
E-cigarettes are often seen as a healthier alternative to smoking and to help people wean off cigarettes, but this has been disproven by researchers from the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Association for Cancer Research. In fact, teenagers may move on to smoking after consistent vape use. The FDA in particular is criticizing companies for marketing towards middle and high-school aged users. All in all, vape pens may contain fewer chemicals, but they still contain the highly addictive nicotine.
Michigan has failed to gain traction when to comes to regulating vape pens more. Lawmakers like Republican Senator Rick Outman have introduced bills to ban the use and possession of vaping tools by minors.
“I’m just trying to get this out of the hands of kids. That’s as simple as it gets. This is a simple bill that doesn’t preclude anything else,” Outman says.
Five years ago, the state Legislature sent a similar bill to then-Governor Rick Snyder. Snyder vetoed it because he agreed with health advocates.
Democratic Senator Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) says he’d like to regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco. But he says there just isn’t the political will to do that -- in part because the result would be higher taxes.
“Let’s have that conversation. I was ready to tackle it last session, it didn’t move. I’m ready to tackle it this session, let’s see if we can get some movement," Moss says. "But I can’t say, you know that is going to hold up this urgent work right now of making sure minors don’t have these vape products."
Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has come out against the bills making their way through the Legislature. But a spokesperson says the governor wants to find a “meaningful solution” to keep minors from vaping.
For some high school students, like 9th grader Mitchell Lake, vaping has become an annoyance.
“You can’t even go to the bathroom hardly,” he says, explaining that kids are vaping constantly throughout the day. “I don’t really think it’s peer pressure here. I think it’s just trying to fit in with groups. Like there’s groups of people that do it, like say you just want to fit in, then you start doing it.”
Ostrander points out that some kids are trying to vape other things as well.
“And so now you’re inhaling that in a way that your body’s not supposed to do that. That’s scary,” he says. “That freaks me out.”