“I want people to look at me and use me as an example and picture them in that situation.”
Chance Ammirata vaped for the first time in a high school culinary class.
It was his junior year and a friend had offered him her Juul. After one inhale, the Miami teen started coughing profusely, but after two more hits he was hooked.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is why you have it,'” the now 18-year-old told BuzzFeed News. “I felt this buzz and it was like all of the anxiety and stress that I had [went away].”
Over the next week, he noticed more and more of his classmates were vaping. He’d occasionally borrow their e-cigarettes in class or in the bathroom. Then, one day, overwhelmed by anxiety, Ammirata felt an intense craving to vape. He raced to a friend who had a Juul and took a hit.
“From that point on, every single day that I tried going without it felt like too much for me, and eventually I ended up having one and I kind of got trapped in the same thing that my friends did,” he said.
Now, amid a nationwide outbreak of mysterious lung illnesses associated with vaping, leading to at least six deaths, Ammirata and other young people who have been hospitalized with injuries they believe were caused by the use of e-cigarettes are using social media to warn their peers about the dangers of vaping and inspiring them to quit.
“All of my friends were vaping. Everyone in my high school was addicted,” said Ammirata, who was hospitalized for a lung collapse his doctor told him was connected to his e-cigarette use. “I honestly knew so many more teenagers that were vaping than not, and I was like ‘OK, I need to put this out there.’ I felt obligated to tell my friends, like, ‘guys, this is not good. You guys need to stop.'”
More than 450 people across 33 states have been affected by serious lung illnesses associated with vaping and six people have died.
The illness is defined by severe pneumonia symptoms, shortness of breath, coughing, fever, fatigue, and respiratory failure, and has so far affected mostly young people. In one case documented in the Midwest, the patient also had a pneumothorax, or collapsed lung.
Federal health officials are still trying to determine what ingredient or ingredients in vaping liquids is making people sick and whether the current outbreak is a new phenomenon or part of a long-running epidemic that is only now surfacing.
In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning consumers to avoid using any kind of vape device.
Cara Fraser said she was nervous to post about the time she was placed in a medically-induced coma for seven days because she couldn’t breathe on her own. At one point during the March 2018 ordeal, doctors told her family to “prepare themselves” because they didn’t think she was going to make it.
Fraser, who was 19 at the time, told BuzzFeed News she had originally only told family and close friends that it was likely her Juuling habit that put her there, but after seeing reports about other people being hospitalized with vaping-related lung injuries she felt like she should do something.
“I just really wanted to help one person,” said Fraser, who started vaping when she was 17. “Not only was it hard physically it was very hard mentally to go through that. I didn’t want anyone else to go through it.”
Instead, she helped a lot more than just one person. Since posting her story on Facebook and Instagram on Sunday, at least nine people have reached out to her saying that she helped them quit.
“When people tell me that I’m like — even if I don’t know them — I’m just proud of them,” the 21-year-old Fairfield, Connecticut, resident said. “It’s definitely not the easiest thing to do … it kind of left me speechless.”
Fabian Castillo, who started vaping in December to help with his anxiety, told BuzzFeed News he vaped despite his mother’s pleas to stop, saying he never thought using an e-cigarette could have dangerous health consequences.
For a while, the nicotine helped mask his stress, Castillo said, but one day he started having trouble breathing. Days later, he was at the hospital getting intubated and placed on a ventilator.
“I looked at myself and I saw the stress that I was putting my mother through and I just don’t want to see anybody go through that,” the 19-year-old said. “I want people to look at me and use me as an example and picture them in that situation.”
Castillo said the experience of nearly dying has caused him even more anxiety and forced him to take a break from school, work, and singing.
The Hemet, California, teen was in a medically-induced coma for nine days, but to him it felt like nine months.
“I just feel so behind,” said Castillo, who is taking a semester off from college and music tutoring to recover. “Everything was just put to a pause because I made that decision because I just started vaping. I didn’t want anyone else to go through it and put their life on pause because they wanted to vape.”
Ammirata, who started vaping when he was 16, said he initially wanted to warn his friends about the dangers of using e-cigarettes when he posted photos of his lungs covered in black dots on his social media channels.
But after hearing from friends and others he didn’t even know that his story inspired them to quit, Ammirata decided to start a social media campaign, #LungLove, where people share videos of themselves throwing out or destroying their e-cigarettes.
“Seeing that I was given a platform and a story I wanted to take my negative experience and really make it a positive one to not only help my friends but also help as many people as I can,” he said.
Ammirata is now working to make his Lung Love campaign a full-fledged foundation to help raise awareness and end youth vaping. He also wants to start a petition to make e-cigarettes prescription drugs so that only former smokers can access vape devices.
According to the US Food and Drug Administration, more than 3.6 million teens use e-cigarettes, devices that were originally intended to wean smokers off tobacco but have quickly turned kids into nicotine addicts.
“If that was the intention of it from the beginning, that’s great, but that’s not where it is now,” he said. “Most teenagers around the nation are using vapes and that’s an issue because we’re growing up as a new generation with nicotine addictions.”
On Wednesday, the Trump administration said it plans to remove all nontobacco vape flavors from the market to help combat youth e-cigarette use.
While many patients have reported recent use of vape products containing THC — the ingredient in marijuana that gets you high — some have reported using only nicotine products, like Juul pods, or both types of vaping liquids.
The e-cigarette industry has blamed black market vaping liquids for the illnesses, but a spokesperson for the CDC said patients have reported using a variety of products and substances.
Both Ammirata and Fraser told BuzzFeed News they only vaped Juul pods, which they bought at gas stations and smoke shops. Castillo said he had a SMOK e-cigarette and primarily used nicotine cartridges from smoke shops, however, he occasionally vaped THC cartridges provided by a relative.
Fraser said that even after she was put in a coma for respiratory failure last year, she had a hard time quitting vaping.
In December 2018, she started Juuling again and the breathing difficulties came roaring back. Now she’s done for good.
“After the first time, I should have been like, ‘what am I doing?,'” Fraser said. “But it’s so addicting. It’s just very hard to stop.”