“He honestly didn’t think that there was anything wrong,” Kennedy said. “He told me that almost all the grade-sevens were doing it.”
And she soon realized that the trend had reached many more kids in her orbit: Kennedy, who owns a dance studio in Northern California, found that most of her dancers had tried vaping, too. She learned that kids were vaping at school, taking puffs inside their shirts and in some cases charging their e-cigarettes in their teacher’s own computer, she said.
Meanwhile, many parents seemed oblivious.
Health experts say parents whose kids are vaping often don’t know what to do or where to turn for help.
“It’s all over social media,” Kennedy said, and popular among star athletes in her community.
As a mother, Kennedy said, she understands the role that peer pressure can play with fads like e-cigarettes. And as the mother of an athlete — Ryder is an avid football and basketball player — Kennedy said she knew that she had to do something. So she asked a local business to print a few T-shirts with a straightforward message: “Athletes don’t vape.” She didn’t know that it would catch on.
“The response of the kids was what blew my mind,” Kennedy said.
Aussem first tells overwhelmed parents, “take a deep breath.”
An important conversation
“I kept hearing the window open,” said Berkman, a mother of four in New York. “I realized that this was going on in my house.”
Experts worry that e-cigarettes could put kids’ developing brains at risk, get them hooked on nicotine early in life and be a gateway to smoking and other drugs — but the long-term effects are unclear.
“In many cases, parents don’t know that their kids are vaping, or they don’t know what’s in the vape,” Aussem said. “There are parents who know that their kids are vaping, but they assume it’s harmless because they think, ‘oh, it’s flavoring. How bad can it be?’ “
Experts also recommend that parents be familiar with signs their kids might be vaping: if they notice a faint, sweet scent, for example. Young e-cig users may also show a change in mood, take frequent breaks to take puffs and share vape-related posts on social media, according to experts.
“It’s been devastating to us,” Gould said. “This is not a product for youth.”
The company, which holds about 75% of the e-cigarette market in the United States, has also maintained that flavors are a useful tool to help adult smokers to switch from combustible cigarettes.
Others have argued there’s no conclusive evidence supporting this use of flavors.
“It’s happening in real time,” she said.
What to watch for
When Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the Adolescent Substance Use and Addiction Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, started receiving calls from parents across the country describing how e-cigarettes were affecting their children, “I was extremely skeptical that the problem was from Juuling and nicotine use,” she said.
“I was wondering, are they using other substances? Are they also using marijuana or something else? Or do they have mental health disorders?” she said. “I’ve actually seen enough local kids now to realize that some of these presentations look all the world like psychiatric presentations.”
Some of these teens come in with anxiety, distractability, headaches and stomachaches, symptoms Levy said were rarely seen with traditional cigarettes. In kids, nicotine addiction may look very different from adults, she added.
Other symptoms may include increased thirst, nosebleeds and mood changes, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
Levy said that “nearly all” adolescents in her program have some experience with e-cigarettes, but “what’s new is that now, we’re seeing patients in the substance use program whose only substance is nicotine.”
“Kids are often really struggling with this, and there are just not a lot of resources for them,” Levy said, adding that many addiction programs may not be equipped to deal with some of the younger, nicotine-addicted kids she’s seeing. Far better would be to ensure that primary care doctors are equipped to work with kids in their own communities, Levy said.
Some parents have pursued nicotine gum and other cessation tools for their children under doctors’ guidance. Levy said that can be tricky because some kids may use these products as a “bridge” between puffs of vapes and tobacco products.
Medications can be important in some advanced cases, but they’re not enough, Levy said; kids also need “good, solid counseling.”
“We end up needing to teach kids how they can deal with cravings, how they can identify high-risk situations, how they can actually deal with being surrounded by people who are using these things,” Levy said. “Because the reality is that, for most kids, we treat them and put them back in school, and then they go to the bathroom, and everybody’s Juuling.”
Aussem said parents can also use positive reinforcement to offer their kids something “more interesting to them than vaping,” and they can set negative consequences. But it’s important to follow through, she added. For example, many parents might threaten to take their kids’ phones away, only to return them a couple days later because it’s difficult to reach them.
For many parents, she said, it’s important to understand that there may be no quick fix.
What’s key, Aussem said, “is to really think about, ‘how am I going to intervene and really be willing to see this as a journey?’ “