On Campus

Vaping is for guinea pigs: Rivers chemistry teacher explains the science behind JUUL

The Rivers School’s science department chair visited the Upper School last week to educate students about the harmful effects of vaping. School Counselors Doug Neuman and Sarah Vollmann, alongside the nursing staff and grade deans, set up the event for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors during a mandatory X block assembly on April 22.

“It took us decades to fully understand the risk associated with smoking cigarettes,” Dr. Maureen Courtney told the students. “Even once we knew [smoking] was a problem, our government was very slow to act. That’s not happening this time, which tells me that this truly is an epidemic and a major problem.”

Dr. Courtney said that along with nicotine, the other chemicals in a JUUL—propylene glycol, glycerin, benzoic acid, and chemicals for flavoring—can also be dangerous when heated up. She added that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is pushing back against JUUL to regulate some of these chemicals.

The variety of fruit or candy-based flavors JUUL and e-cigarettes offers is particularly troubling, she said, because these products, which were created to help adults safely quit cigarette smoking, have reached much younger clients.

She recalled a time when her 10-year-old son came home from school with the candy-flavored “juice” for an e-cigarette and told her, “Mom, it’s just candy that you smoke. Will you buy me one? Everyone on the bus has one.”

Mr. Neuman said the assembly was an attempt to address the growing vaping issue among teenagers.

“We continue to hear more about vaping, and it’s important that students have up-to-date information,” Mr. Neuman said. “It’s an ongoing effort to educate about the health risks, to make sure that students understand all the science behind it and are not duped by an industry that’s pulling them in to be lifelong users.”

Another factor the school considered when choosing to host this assembly was the possibility of helping  students who vape commit to quitting, Mr. Neuman said.

“There are a number of students who are trying to quit vaping or thinking about quitting,” he said in advance of the event. “This assembly could be really helpful for those people. We’ve discussed the possibility of starting a vaping cessation group for people wanting to stop and to provide some tools to help them do that.”

Jake Elkins ’20 said he found Dr. Courtney’s focus on the negative health effects of vaping effective.

“It was a very educational assembly,” Jake said. “I didn’t know any of the information about JUULs before, and now I know how bad they are for your body.”

Ellie Wade ’22 also said she appreciated Dr. Courtney’s approach to explaining the issue.

“It was interesting how she didn’t just tell us not to vape,” she said. “Instead, she explained how it’s awful for you.”

But Sylvia Murphy ’20 said that while she appreciated the assembly’s educational value, she didn’t think it targeted the right audience.

“It was geared toward preventing people from vaping rather than giving strategies to quit, which I don’t think is the approach that we really need,” Sylvia said. “If anyone’s not vaping, then they’ve already made that decision.”

Anjali Hudson ’22 also said the assembly was informative but may not have been impactful.

“It was good to address [vaping] because it’s a big thing here, and it was good to show people what it’s actually doing to their bodies,” Anjali said. “But I also feel like a lot of people are just going to ignore it and keep vaping.”

Dr. Courtney ended her presentation by referring to a vaping article that identified current teenagers as “the guinea pig generation” because the long-term effects of vaping are still unknown.

“The [article was] like ‘Oh well, we don’t know what’s going to happen; guess we’ll find out in 20 to 30 years.’ And I thought that was horrible,” Dr. Courtney said. “This is not going away, the way things are right now. You owe it to yourself not to be a guinea pig.”

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