Not Cool to Juul?: Police, administrators condemn vaping after rise in popularity


 Sterling Heights sophomore Nick Richez vapes for a photograph Jan. 12 at Casa Loma Apartments. 

Music is playing as people are standing around a counter and talking about their week or watching the football game playing on TV.  

As more patrons walk in the door, those already inside greet them by name and ask them to join their conversation.

This isn't a bar or restaurant, its one of the several vape stores in Mount Pleasant. These stores sell “vaporizers” as well as “juices” to be used with them.

People who vape can customize their vaporizer “rigs” for bigger clouds of vapor or just to make them look different. There’s an overwhelming amount of different juice flavors and brands to choose from, with flavors ranging from mint to chicken and waffles. Juices come in a variety of nicotine-levels, and some are available nicotine-free. 

Vaping is different than smoking. Although vaping still contains nicotine, it can not contain tobacco. Smoke comes from something being burned. Vapor, however, is just when a substance becomes gaseous. 

While vaping originated as a way to help those who smoke cigarettes quit, there has been rising concern about a recent wave of minors who recreationally vape. Many of these underage vape users have never smoked a cigarette, and the popular Juul brand of vaporizer uses juice containing 50 milligrams of nicotine. In comparison, one cigarette contains about one milligram of nicotine.

The rise

Sterling Heights sophomore Nick Richez started vaping in 2016, when he was a sophomore in high school. He believes one of the factors that has led to its increased popularity is that people are doing it because they think it's cool right now.

"It was a big thing at parties," Richez said. "That kind of got me into it because my friends bought them, so I got my own so I wasn't mooching off of them."

Richez started vaping before he had ever smoked a cigarette. He likes to vape as a sort of distraction or fidget device. Even though vaping was originally intended to help quit smoking, he feels like it has become something else entirely.

Battle Creek sophomore Zac Dehn poses for a photo with a Juul on Jan. 15 at Wayside Central.

"I think it's being used for the wrong reasons, even for the case I use it," he said.

Mount Pleasant resident Devin Green has worked at the Vaped Ape store for three years. When Green was close to graduating high school, he switched from smoking cigarettes to vaping alongside his friends because it tasted better and it has health benefits over smoking, he said.

“I was an occasional smoker, but now, I would never think about going back,” Green said.

For Green, vaping is more than just a way to quit smoking — it’s a hobby and a community. 

For Mount Pleasant resident Jennifer McNeal, vaping not only helped her family members quit smoking but she claims it also helped remedy a condition she has.

McNeal has a condition called vasovagal syncope that causes the body to overreact in stressful situations and cause a dramatic drop in blood pressure, resulting in fainting. One of the side effects of the nicotine in her vape juice — raised blood pressure — helps counteract the condition.

“Ever since I started vaping, I haven’t had any problems at all,” she said. “It’s healthier (than smoking cigarettes) and helps me live my everyday life.”

McNeal’s parents were heavy smokers that quit by vaping and then quit vaping altogether. Her sister used to smoke up to two packs of cigarettes a day before she started vaping, she said.

“I think it’s a lot better for the community than a lot of people think it is,” McNeal said. “It brings people together, it gets people to quit smoking, and it makes life healthier overall for a lot of people.”

Legal problems

Mount Pleasant resident Bethany Diaz started working at Wild Bill’s Tobacco in May 2018. The store sells tobacco products like cigars and cigarettes. She applied for the job because she frequented the store and knew a lot about glass pipes. She had never vaped before.

“I got here and realized I didn’t know anything about vape. It was all gibberish to me,” Diaz said. 

A student vapes in his living room on Jan. 14 in Herrig Hall. 

Within a week, she was up to speed and happily involved in the vape community. She considers her coworkers and several regular customers to be like a family.

“There is a girl we know that’s been in here four times this week, and it’s Friday,” Diaz said. “We joke and tell her she’s going to have to start paying rent.”

Diaz acknowledges there are issues in the vape community. Underage vape users are a big problem, even just in Wild Bill’s.

“We kick out at least three underage kids here a day,” Diaz said.

Just like traditional cigarettes, it is illegal to distribute e-cigarettes and e-cigarette liquids and accessories to anyone under the age of 18. However, this hasn’t stopped a seemingly growing underage vaping epidemic. 

According to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 3.6 million middle school and high school students vape. The CDC also cited that in 2018, one out of every five high school students vape, as opposed to five out of every one hundred in 2011. Underage vaping has gotten so out of hand the the Food and Drug Administration has recently taken steps to prevent it

In November 2018, the FDA announced it would be seeking to ban several flavors of e-cigarette liquid sold by the popular Juul brand, leaving only tobacco and mint flavors for sale. The FDA later scaled this ban back and instead allowed these products to be sold in stores from an area that was kept separate and inaccessible to underage consumers. 

Juul Labs, the company behind the popular Juul brand and line of e-cigarette products, temporarily suspended the sale of several flavors and instituted several policies aimed to keep the devices out of the hands of minors. The company also discontinued its social media marketing among rising public criticism and FDA pressure.

Vaping on campus

In 2014, Central Michigan University instituted a tobacco free campus policy. This policy prohibits the use of cigarettes, pipes, cigars, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes.

Associate Vice President of Human Resources at CMU Lori Hella said the policy covers all vape related products and considers them e-cigarettes, even though they do not contain tobacco and some do not contain nicotine.

The main reason e-cigarettes were included in the ban is that at the time the policy was written e-cigarettes were not approved by the FDA, Hella said.

Although the policy may need to be revisited and perhaps updated, it is unlikely that e-cigarettes will be allowed on campus in the future, she said.

“The tobacco policy was rolled out to promote and protect the health of the CMU community,” she said. “For the time being, the policy is likely to stay as it is.”

Underage vaping

The Mount Pleasant Police Department released a press release warning about the rising use of vape devices amongst minors on Dec. 27. 

The release said that the MPPD performed compliance checks at tobacco stores in Mount Pleasant and cited three businesses for selling tobacco products to a minor. The businesses cited were Wild Side Smoke Shop, Empty Keg Party Store, and Inline Vape.

When performing the checks, the MPPD takes an underage volunteer who has parental permission to vape stores and tells them to attempt to buy vaping products with their underage ID. Employees that fail the checks are cited for Selling Tobacco Products to a Minor.

The press release also contained information about the dangers of e-cigarettes and included pictures of the devices and liquids.

MPPD Public Information Officer David VanDyke said that educating parents on what e-cigarette and related products actually are is a large part in preventing minors from accessing them.

“I don’t know that everyone is aware of what it looks like,” VanDyke said.

VanDyke said he saw a device in his 18-year-old daughter’s room, which he thought was a portable phone charger, but turned out to be a vape pen. 

“I had no idea that was something to inhale nicotine products,” he said.

The press release also included many adverse health effects that could result from using vaping products such as pregnancy complications and nicotine poisoning.

“It’s safer than conventional cigarettes, but it’s still putting all kinds of chemicals in your body,” he said. “Of course the nicotine is the worst one.”

Vaping in high school

Mount Pleasant High School Principal Denny Starnes says that this year is the first year when kids vaping in the building has become a major issue.

If students are caught vaping, they will receive an out of school suspension for the first offense with discipline becoming more severe for every consecutive offense. Starnes will also meet with the student and the student’s parents to let them know what happened and to talk about the negative health effects of vaping, he said.

MPHS Behavior Interventionist Greg Wendrow said that even though vaping can be hard to detect because of the quickly-dissipating nature of the vapor, he sometimes notices changes in behavior, like students taking frequent trips to the bathroom to vape discreetly.

Wendrow said that he often uses his background as a registered nurse to inform students about the dangers of nicotine and nicotine addiction if he suspects they may be vaping.

MPPD Officer Brandon Bliss works in Mount Pleasant High School as a school liaison officer, and has put together presentations to inform middle school teachers, high school teachers and parents about the underage vaping epidemic sweeping through schools.

“We’ve been trying to get education out there,” Bliss said. “It was around a little bit last year but I wouldn’t say it was a problem, and this year it has exploded.”

As a tobacco product, it is treated just like a cigarette in terms of legality and consequences among those who are underage.

“We’re trying to educate and prevent. It’s a battle right now,” Bliss said.

For CMU students, vaping has become a social norm around campus and nightlife. 

Richez has cut back on how much he vapes in the past few months because he knows it is bad for his health. Vape products marketing towards teens has turned a device meant to help people quit smoking into an entirely other problem, he said.

"Maybe I won't completely stop vaping, but I will definitely feel better about how much I use it in the future than I do now," he said.