Vaping Sends Smoke Signals to Jewish Atlanta

Vaping Sends Smoke Signals to Jewish Atlanta

Atlanta's Jewish community, from nonprofits to day schools, recently held a program about vaping, its rampant availability and the stealthy nature of e-cig devices.

The use of e-cigarettes, commonly known as vaping, has been labeled a national epidemic and the Atlanta Jewish community is feeling the heat. Just last week, several Jewish organizations that work with teens, including Jewish day schools and those that counsel about substance abuse, sponsored a parenting program about vaping. The program opened the eyes of those who attended about the rampant availability and stealthy nature of the e-cig devices and the teens that use them.

The event also proved that the Jewish community sees vaping as a serious concern among teens. 

“We are saying publicly there is a problem. We can’t pretend this is not happening in our community,” said Kelly Cohen, director of JumpSpark, a teen engagement program, which organized the vaping talk. “So much of vaping is kept hidden. It’s the silence that can be the most damaging.”

Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post // A Juul vaping system with accessory pods in varying flavors.

The fast-growing popularity of vaping and resulting need to manage it in the schools and among area youth is keeping Jewish educators and counselors on their toes.

“What is just astonishing is that teens don’t know they are introducing addiction into their brains,” said Daniel Epstein, program director of The Berman Center, which provides intensive outpatient programs for mental health and substance abuse. “People struggle and lose their lives over addiction.”

While e-cigs may be an alternative to cigarettes for those who already use them, for young people, they can be a gateway to cigarettes or other more dangerous drugs, according to a U.S. Surgeon General report widely cited by other health organizations, including the American Cancer Society.

“Because addiction is a form of learning, adolescents can get addicted more easily than adults. The nicotine in e-cigarettes and other tobacco products can also prime the adolescent brain for addiction to other drugs such as cocaine,” the Surgeon General wrote in its 2018 report, “Know the Risks: E-Cigarettes & Young People.”

In the U.S., youth are more likely than adults to use e-cigs. This year, more than 3.6 million U.S. middle and high school students used e-cigs in the past 30 days, including about 5 percent of middle school students and nearly 21 percent of high school students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s 1.5 million more students using these products over the previous year. E-cigarette use increased 78 percent among high school students from 2017 to 2018, and 48 percent among middle school students, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Although the sale and distribution of vapor products to people under 18 is prohibited, according to Georgia law, it is still readily available online.

A starter kit of the most popular Juul brand of vape includes the device, USB charging dock and four flavored Juul pods with 5 percent nicotine strength. It costs about $50.

Juul and other popular electronic vaping devices heat liquid to produce an odorless, smokeless aerosol or vapor from a canister easily mistaken as a USB flash drive.

Counselors and school officials we interviewed say they are aware of the trends and are trying to be proactive.  They see the writing on the bathroom wall, so to speak.

Underlying Health Risk

A number of national health organizations have come out with reports about the risk of vaping, which tends to contain highly addictive nicotine that can damage the developing brain and lungs. The vapor also contains propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin, which are used to produce theatrical fog and can irritate the lung and airway after concentrated exposure, according to ACS. It also may contain volatile organic compounds, flavoring chemicals and formaldehyde, which can cause cancer.

The subject is so grave and timely that the U.S. FDA is holding public meetings about eliminating e-cigs, vaporizers and other electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) and taking public comments until Jan. 2.

A parent of a Jewish high school student first brought the issue to the attention of Cohen of JumpSpark. “She said, ‘I know this is happening at my daughter’s school and I don’t know what’s going on.’”

JumpSpark sponsored last week’s parenting talk, presented by Caron Atlanta, a nonprofit behavioral health treatment center, and Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse (HAMSA), a program of Jewish Family & Career Services. The event was held at The Weber School with its support, along with that of The Epstein School and Atlanta Jewish Academy, Greater Atlanta BBYO and Temple Beth Tikvah.

Rabbi Ed Harwitz, Weber’s head of school

Rabbi Ed Harwitz, head of The Weber School, said vaping has become one of the biggest topics of conversation online among heads of school, principals and administrators. The issues around the country are similar: how to combat and prevent vaping among students; supervise them as effectively and safely as possible; and respond when incidents present themselves.

“Like all high schools, Weber faces challenges around vaping. It’s a great challenge for high school and middle schools,” said Harwitz.

He said that, at Weber, “we have our eyes wide open.” The alternative – denying that the problem exists – would be unrealistic and irresponsible, he added.

Weber’s main concerns are preserving the health, wellness, safety and security of the students. In addition to working with students, parents, faculty and staff and staying up-to-date on the issue, the school has clarified its policies and is clear about consequences for violations. “Just as the issue came to the forefront and the level of concern increased in the last couple of years, Weber started thinking through it creatively to ensure our students were well informed and safe,” Harwitz said.

“Vaping is the new reality.  We want to take the lead and be clear about our standards, … and deal realistically” with the problem, he said.

Also being pro-active, the Atlanta Jewish Academy revised its substance abuse policy this summer to include vaping. If there’s a report of substance abuse, the school will work with The Berman Center to get students the resources they need, said Pam Mason, AJA’s upper school counselor.  “We do not want to punish; we want to help them.” At the start of the school year, AJA also held a show-and-tell parent night to teach about vaping.   

Jill Weinstein is co-founder of The Berman Center’s new Evolve program, an adolescent intensive outpatient treatment program for teens dealing with mental health issues. Most turn to vaping as a way to deal with stress, anxiety and depression, Weinstein said.  “Our goal is to help give them alternatives to vaping. It depends on why they are vaping.” If it’s anxiety, Evolve may offer breathing or mindfulness exercises, suggest distracting behaviors or other alternative coping skills, Weinstein said.

Popularity of Vaping

“One way that teens can push boundaries and test the waters of independence is by taking risks, and vaping is an easy way to do that,” said Leslie Lubell, HAMSA’s information and referral specialist. “Not only that, but it’s naturally appealing to teens because it’s trendy. The consequences are usually minimal at first, but the long-term effects are powerful; nicotine is an addictive drug, and people who vape are four times more likely to ultimately smoke combustible cigarettes. Also, the vape industry is largely unregulated, and the products that people use in their vapes can contain harmful chemicals,” Lubell said.

HAMSA’s Leslie Lubell

“Last, but certainly not least, teens who vape are exponentially more likely to experiment with other drugs and alcohol. It’s important for parents to be informed so they know how to talk to their kids and identify the risks and negative consequences associated with vaping.”

Ellen Zucrow, clinical supervisor, and substance abuse counselor Sally Anderson, both with JF&CS, report seeing vaping issues in their high school population. “Actually, the problem is that teens and youth are NOT concerned about their vaping. … For them it is socially acceptable behavior and part of the culture. Teens will often not see a problem, because of the flavors, the fact that it is easily concealed and that it is used as part of a social and recreational experience. Additionally, they mistakenly believe that it is harmless. For example, safer than cigarettes,” the counselors wrote in a joint email.

How do you counsel teens with this mindset?

“So, generally, teens and youth will not be seeking services for their vaping, and don’t recognize it as a problem,” they wrote. “It may emerge as a part of a broader discussion. Kids may have some insight as to why they are vaping, but usually we have to explore the reasons behind what purpose vaping serves and help them understand its harmful effects. Part of our role may include educating teens that what they vape may be laced with other substances that they are unaware of. It may be that these unknown substances cause unintended consequences such as depression, anxiety or even psychosis. What we have experienced is that often teens begin vaping to calm anxiety and stress. While vaping initially may be used as a coping tool to manage anxiety, it can quickly become problematic. It is important to explain to teens that while vaping may provide temporary relief from their stress, continued use will actually worsen their symptoms over time.”

Director of JumpSpark, Kelly Cohen

While the vaping program last week was a first step to educating Jewish Atlanta, Cohen said she hopes the community will continue the conversation. “We need to shine the light on this and continue to address it.”

The next step, she said, is giving educators the tools to help them address vaping in the schools. “They are at the front lines, working with teens in the community,” she said.

“We have to be open and honest in dialogue about this. We should not be afraid to talk to teens.” They should know, too, “they are not on their own to deal with it.”

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