Pediatricians have emphasized that even those who do not suffer a serious lung injury are at risk for addiction and that the effects of long-term use of e-cigarettes are unknown. Even before the outbreak, pediatricians reported alarming symptoms in teens who used e-cigarettes: explosive anger, extreme mood swings, insomnia and headaches. Some teens were vaping nicotine products until they threw up and were going to extremes to keep vaping even after they faced severe consequences.
One 17-year-old in Arlington, Va., said he has started to steer clear of dab pens. But he said his classmates believe they are safe if they avoid buying black-market vaping products. The dealer who sells to his friends assures them the cartridges come from authorized vendors.
“We try to buy the legitimate ones,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly.
His comments are emblematic of a broader information battle being waged between pediatricians and educators and teens who possess an outsize sense of invincibility. Many teens were turned on to vaping nicotine by Juul, a sleek e-cigarette the size of a USB drive with cartridge flavors such as mango and creme brulee.
Some teens said they did not know that the vapor contained nicotine and that they were at risk of becoming addicted, a misconception that researchers studying adolescent vape use have also found. And because the devices were advertised as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, many teens believe they are safe, even those who are repulsed by traditional tobacco products.
“It tasted good, and it gave me a head rush,” said Adam Hergenreder, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate from the Chicago suburbs who was one of the hundreds of teens hospitalized this summer with a vaping-related lung injury.
He said that after he started vaping nicotine, he sought a more intense high and began vaping THC. He said he believed that was safer than smoking marijuana in a pipe.
“I thought that vaping was safe, so to think that that little product did that much damage to my lungs, it was crazy to think about,” Hergenreder said.
Hergenreder has joined teens across the country suing Juul, alleging the e-cigarette manufacturer targeted young users.
The news stories about vaping-related illness have emboldened some teens to be more forceful with their friends about quitting, even though it carries the risk of getting them tagged as square or a nag. Hergenreder wrote a message in a group chat with friends listing the latest toll of the vaping-related illnesses: hundreds, including himself, hospitalized. He urged them to quit, and then wrote: “Please make sure you guys read what I just said.” He got no response. Dejected, he left the group chat.
The teen in Cary, N.C., who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could candidly discuss his friends’ vaping habits, said he could no longer stay silent and once again laid out his arguments for quitting in text messages.
“When you have friends, you want them to be around for a long time, and you don’t want them to get hooked,” he said. He has long been frustrated by his friends’ vaping habits but has been careful not to be too forceful, lest he alienate them. But the news stories about people being hospitalized and dying fostered a sense of urgency. He posted in a group text message with nearly three dozen friends, urging them to quit.
Some of his friends have laughed at the warnings, he said. But he said he believes the jokes are a way to mask deepening anxiety: “I truly think they’re scared and they want to quit.”
At least one friend, who had heard about the health problems related to vaping in his high school journalism class, said he listened. Standing with friends one day last month on the edge of his neighborhood, the 17-year-old announced he was going to quit. His peers scoffed, saying they were skeptical he would follow through.
“Yeah, I am,” he said. “I’ll prove it.”
And with that, he lobbed his vape into the nearby forest.