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Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

To Vape or Not to Vape?

Survival of the fittest originated from Darwin's theory of natural selection. In short, it means that those with superior genes or adaptations will have the most success when reproducing. In today’s world, survival may be determined by who decides to consume chemical products blindly without knowing the health implications associated. Vaping has exerted a selection pressure on today’s generation.

Hospitalizations and even deaths related to vaping have been in news headlines across the country for weeks. Young adults have been mysteriously falling ill with lung complications that often require intensive care units to recover. I surveyed 300 Boston College students on their vaping habits and general perceptions right after the first cases started to show up in the news. 

When asked if they had ever smoked traditionally from a non-battery device or ever used a vaporizer, 53% of students had traditionally smoked and 58% had used a vaporizer to ingest either nicotine or cannabis products. Follow-up questions for those who had vaped asked what types of devices they had used in the past:

  • 19% tried e-cigarettes 
  • 31% tried pod vapes 
  • 34% tried vape pens 
  • 15% tried Box mod or high wattage box mod vapes 
  • 1% tried an unspecified other 

Pod vapes and vape pens are the most popular consumption method and the most dangerous, according to follow-up research from the illnesses striking seemingly healthy young adults.

The main purpose of vaporizing devices was to help cigarette smokers turn to a “healthier” alternative. E-cigarettes first entered the market around 2003 and remained a popular transitional or substitute substance for traditional tobacco products. Juul, the most popular and well-known nicotine device on the market, was first made available in 2015. The slim, rechargeable design and disposable pods made it convenient for smokers to transition from smoking to vaping. Each pod consists of nicotine salts that are as potent as a pack of cigarettes. The company has been scrutinized for marketing to younger, underage consumers by using colorful packages and providing different appealing flavor options. Today, Juul and nicotine vapes have taken over the mass market and seem to be part of college kids' daily routine and lifestyle; empty pods litter the Mod lot, and no matter where you are at a campus party or local bar, there will always be someone using a Juul. From the survey, it was not surprising to learn that 63% of those who have used vaping devices had not traditionally smoked beforehand. Vaping was the entry point to consuming THC or nicotine for more than half of users.

65% of people who had smoked before vaping were consuming marijuana. This proves that Juul and other nicotine vaporizers have acquired customers who otherwise would have never used the product and certainly were not addicted. Marijuana is not a gateway drug and does not cause physical dependence, though it can be argued that psychological dependency is real. Weed is legalized for recreational use in 11 states and Washington D.C. and 33 states legalized the use of medical marijuana.

Marijuana vaping or “dab pens" are also extremely popular among younger generations, especially in the states where the product is legalized. Cartridges allow for discreet ingestion of THC with reduced smell and pens the size of an everyday writing utensil. Research about recreational use and the non-traditional consumption of marijuana, such as dab pens, is very slim compared to the knowledge of medical use for patients with cancer, epilepsy, etc. Likewise, it is hard to study the full effects of dab pens because there are so many counterfeit products on the unregulated “underground” market.

Of the 58% of survey respondents who had a history of using vapes, 53% said that they had specifically used a Juul. Of those 148 students, 23% confessed to “Juuling” daily. 52% had only used the vape a few times ever. An interesting statistic following the frequency of use was whether or not students used the device more when consuming alcohol or not. 80% of respondents agreed that they used a Juul more when they are drinking. Perhaps in a drinking environment students have better access to the devices, or it helps alleviate the feelings associated with drinking.

61% of students had never owned their own Juul, but 39% had currently owned a Juul or had one in the past. For those who owned a Juul, more than half bought pods at least once a week, spending an average of $57 a month. 

It is important to look at the difference between nicotine and cannabis vape products. Of the 58% of vape users, 127 (47%) respondents had used a vape containing THC. Some cannabis vape products contain just CBD, the nonpsychoactive substance found in the plant, but THC is specifically what these students were intending to consume. When asked how frequently they used the pen, less than 10% said daily and 25% used it one to six days out of the week. More than 50% of respondents had only used a pen only a few times in their lives, similar to the percentage of people who only used Juuls once or twice.

In the news, a lot of speculation revolves around where the “dab pens" come from. From those who used a dab pen, only 7% knew precisely where the cartridges came from: a dispensary. 25% of students bought their cartridges “off the streets,” and the other 68% of respondents had no idea where the cartridge came from, either because the pen was not theirs or because they relied on someone else to provide the cartridges for them.

Higher frequency of THC vaping did not have the same correlation with drinking as nicotine did. 34% agreed that they ingested more THC from a vape when they were drinking, while 38% disagreed and 28% neither agreed nor disagreed. Ingesting marijuana does not seem to be associated with drinking nearly as much as the four-fifths of people who agreed to Juuling more when they were under the influence.

The overall consumption of marijuana cartridges seems to be far less according to the data as well. Even though the percentages of those who have owned or currently own a THC vaporizer (38%) are similar to Juul users, more than 85% of owners purchased pods on a monthly or yearly basis, paying an average of $50 a month. The cartridges last users more time than pods for Juul users, probably because THC is a non-addictive substance, and less can be used for a lasting effect. 

The vaping epidemic has been prevalent in the news for the past month with more than 800 known cases associated with e-cigarettes and dab pens. 98% of survey respondents were aware of the recent news of young adults falling very ill or dying because of vaping. When asked if vaping causes lung disease and medical emergencies, 86% agreed, 11% were not sure, and 3% disagreed. However, only 60% agreed that they would stop vaping after seeing the news. 26% flat out disagreed that the news would make them stop vaping. Since this survey closed, the state has made the executive decision for students, or at least made it very hard for them to continue their habits.

This past week Massachusetts banned the distribution of all vaping products for the next 4 months as a public safety crisis. Without sufficient research, it is hard to tell where the toxins are coming from. However, the CDC has released information saying that, “Among the 514 cases where the CDC has data on which substance they were vaping, 76.9% said they used THC and 56.8% reported using nicotine. More than a third of the patients, 36%, said they exclusively used THC while 16% said they only vaped nicotine.” It is impossible at this time to know how the vapes are affecting our bodies and if we can blame nicotine, marijuana products, or both. The CDC and medical institutions around the country are urging consumers not to buy counterfeit products because they could be even more dangerous with chemicals and bi-products that are not tested or approved. Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts is going as far as removing regulated vaping pens from approved recreational facilities until there is more information about the case of illness or death.

This ban has caused outrage amongst college students. I have seen or heard of more than 10 people stock ordering Juul pods online or having their parents deliver them from out of state over Parents’ Weekend. Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical, and with the ban, students may have to turn to smoking cigarettes in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms. When asked to compare traditional smoking to vaping, most students perceived smoking more negatively:

  • 78% perceived traditional smoking as more dangerous than vaping 
  • 97% believed vaping was most common amongst college students 
  • 80% believed vaping was more attractive than tradition smoking 
  • 65% believed that traditional smoking would kill you before vaping would

The same questions were asked to compare nicotine vaping to cannabis. Overall, nicotine was perceived more negatively: 

  • 68% perceived nicotine vaping as more dangerous than THC vaping 
  • 82% believed nicotine vaping was most common amongst college students 
  • 55% believed nicotine vaping was more attractive than THC vaping 
  • 74% believed that nicotine vaping would kill you first 

Marijuana still has a negative stigma as being an illicit drug which could be why it is seen as less attractive, but with research about the medical benefits of marijuana and the legalization of the drug, its public perception is changing. Many now perceive it as safer than nicotine. 

With more and more cases occurring in the news daily, and the average “victim” of the epidemic being only 23 years old, it is interesting to find that so many students believe vaping is causing the issue, though only 60% are willing to quit. Likewise, 20% of vaping respondents said that they are likely to start traditional smoking again, even though it is perceived as more dangerous and unattractive. 63% said that they would not revert to traditional smoking; however, this ban may push students over the edge.

The CEO of Juul stepped down. Government officials are imploring people to stop vaping until more research has been conducted. Our generation may be smarter about the environment, but we don’t seem to care much about our personal health. Our brains continue to develop into our mid-20s. We do not know the implications of vaping. It is smart to ban the products because it may be the only way to make people quit. I advise the student body to have a little more patience for the students going through nicotine withdrawals. It’s implied through this survey and the number of illnesses over the country that vaping may not be hurting just our lungs but also our brains. Use this time to stay educated, and kick the bad habits before they take over your ability to be “men and women for others”. h

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Wicked loyal Boston local with a penchant for big dogs and Klondike Bars. I once heard someone call a raccoon a trash panda, and I've never identified with anything more.