Steered Straight founder Michael DeLeon doesn’t like to hear people talk about the opioid or heroin epidemic. Focusing on those two drugs alone overlooks all the other substances, such as alcohol and nicotine, that can also do damage in what he sees as nothing short of “an addiction pandemic.”
Until recently, most parents, he said, would not have been as concerned about their teenager vaping as they would be if their child experimented with other drugs.
In the past month, however, vaping has taken its place alongside other more serious substances, as federal officials have issued warnings after an outbreak associated with e-cigarettes has sickened at least 805 people and caused 12 deaths.
Now DeLeon, a former addict himself, finds himself counseling parents about what they should be doing. This year, he will visit more than 700 schools around the country, including Southport High School, where he will speak next week.
His talk comes as a handful of states, such as New York and Michigan, move to ban flavored vapes to dissuade youth from vaping. The Trump administration has also said it is working on a plan to take flavored vapes off the market.
Here are four takeaways for parents:
Vaping has key role in ‘trifecta gateway’
The vast majority of people who develop an addiction start with substance use between the ages of 10 and 18, DeLeon says.
Most of those begin with alcohol, marijuana or nicotine, what DeLeon calls the “trifecta gateway.”
While traditionally smoking has served as the delivery method for the last two of those, teens are now vaping nicotine and marijuana.
“You’ve got three drugs that work together in the lives of teenagers because they’re the three most desensitized drugs in America,” he said. “I believe nicotine is the worst gateway drug of them all.”
Little to no regulation of vaping
While many people think Juul and vaping are synonymous, the outbreak has revealed that many people who vape are not necessarily using Juul devices but buying products from a variety of sources, including online.
Some sites even sell modified Juul pods that they can fill with whatever they want, including “liquid weed,” a nickname for THC.
Others just focus on vape devices that deliver nicotine along with those fruity flavors that are catching the attention of regulators. Most products, however, undergo little scrutiny before being passed to consumers, DeLeon said.
“It’s untested, unregulated, and it’s like the wild, wild west,” he said. “Now this wild, wild west has turned into an absolute nightmare.”
Nicotine is nicotine
E-cigarettes may still be a boon for former smokers who switch from traditional cigarettes, DeLeon said, but the process could wind up being that much more addictive for youth who have never smoked.
Traditional cigarettes deliver nicotine to the brain more slowly than the alternative, he said. Vaping brings the nicotine to the brain much faster.
“When you vape, the nicotine gets there like heroin. It’s 10 times more addictive,” he said.
Parents must be vigilant
Parents may think vaping offers a safer alternative to smoking or using alcohol or marijuana. They may think they can trust their teens.
But DeLeon thinks otherwise.
The non-profit he runs sells oral and surface tests for nicotine and THC. He recommends that parents test their children and the surfaces of their children’s rooms if they have any suspicions that their child uses THC or nicotine.
“Kids don’t think this is a drug,” he said. “Parents must verify that their kids are telling the truth. They need to educate kids and get educated themselves.”