“Do you mind if I sit upwind from you and vape?”
It’s the first thing Evelyn Svendsen asked me as we sat down on a bench outside Phillips Hall for our interview. I told her no, I don’t mind, and she pulled a Suorin out of her pocket. It’s a teardrop-shaped vaping device, and its surface is holographic, reflecting an ever-shifting rainbow as it moves. She took a hit and then blew the smoke into the air. It dissipated almost immediately, with nothing but the faint, lingering scent of Fruit Loops in the crisp air as evidence that anything happened at all.
Right away, Svendsen proudly told me today marks three weeks of only vaping, no cigarettes.
“It’s the only real effective thing I’ve ever found,” Svendsen said. “It basically serves all of the same function as smoking a cigarette…but it tastes much better.” She had been a pack-a-day smoker for eight years, and her desire to quit led her to vaping back in 2012. She said she has tried other forms of nicotine replacement, but nothing offers the same oral fixation as vaping.
At 28, Svendsen is older than the typical college student, but she’s a part of the growing vape community on college campuses nonetheless. According to University of Iowa Wellness Director Megan Hammes, the most recent campus survey indicated 25 percent of UI students answered yes to having used an e-cigarette, Juul or other vape device in the last 30 days. In 2017, it was 8 percent.
“I was floored,” Hammes said.
“We have a rep from student government at our meetings and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, all my frat brothers do it, and people do it in class’ and I was like ‘What?’” To put UI’s vaping rates into perspective, a national survey in the spring of 2017 by the American College Health Association found that 10 percent of college students reported using some form of e-cigarette. That makes the UI’s rate over twice as high as the national college rate.
This upward trend in vaping has not only been seen among college students. According to the FDA, more than 2 million middle and high schoolers currently used e-cigarettes as of 2017. These usage rates have tripled since 2011, causing the FDA to focus on preventing vaping in America’s youth. However, because college students are of legal age to purchase tobacco, they are left out of much of the conversation surrounding the vaping “epidemic,” as the FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has dubbed it.
For Hammes, however, the concern is still very real.
“As a wellness professional, it’s alarming,” Hammes said. “The university is going to be employing these students in 5-6 years and if they’re addicted and moving onto cigarettes, this is going to become a bigger problem. I just can’t help but think that that’s going show up at some point in our workforce.” Vaping is actually prohibited on the University of Iowa’s campus by the school’s Tobacco Free Campus Policy. Cigarette smoking has been banned on campus since the state-wide Smoke Free Air Act went into effect in 2008. In 2015, however, the university switched to from being a “smoke-free” campus being a “tobacco-free” campus for the purpose of including other kinds of nicotine delivery devices, such as vapes, in the ban.
“We were starting to sense that we were going to need to do more than the Iowa Smoke Free Air Act because of the confusion around ‘What is that thing? Is it a cigarette? There’s smoke coming out if it—is that included?’” Hammes said. Because the Smoke Free Air Act is a state law, anyone smoking a cigarette on campus can be subject to a $50 fine. However, because vaping falls under UI policy, Hammes said it’s treated as any other policy violation if a student is found vaping on campus. This means that if a student continually ignores warnings about violating the policy, a formal student misconduct report would be filed. The report is investigated by the university and sanctions are imposed—typically in the form of a mandatory educational program for this level of infraction.
“Vapes come so small and kids use them outside, so how do you monitor something like that?” UI junior Lauren Vorel said. “And even if school officials could constantly monitor campus for vaping, no teacher wants to be that person.” As of November 6, the UI Police have responded to 102 calls for service regarding tobacco in 2018, with only 14 resulting in citations. And although every incoming student, staff and faculty member knows about the policy, the university faces challenges in trying to enforce it.
UI sophomore Hannah Rowedder agrees that while the policy has good intentions, it’s not effective.
The only time she’s ever seen it enforced was in Kinnick Stadium, and even then, the student only got a verbal warning. “People are going to continue to do it, and since there’s no physical signs, it’s hard to prove someone was doing it,” Rowedder said. “People are going to find ways to get away with it more than they already do.” Vorel doesn’t vape, and neither does Rowedder after making a deal with her grandpa at age 9 that she would never smoke if he would stop smoking cigars. Both cite health and addiction concerns for their dislike of vaping.
However, Juul, a major e-cigarette company that holds 70 percent of the vape market, actually markets their products as a smoking cessation devices. On their About Me page, the first line states, “Juul is an easy to use vaporizer designed for adult smokers looking for a genuine alternative to smoking cigarettes,” and their mission statement reads, “Improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers.” Their website also includes a cost savings calculator, to calculate how much you’d save by switching from cigarettes to Juuling.
“What is hilarious about that is that most people don’t go from cigarettes to Juuls,” Hammes said.
“They go from nothing to Juuls. Their outward-facing website may market Juul as cessation tool, but we know their real marketing goals are not to help people quit smoking, but to adopt new users.” Juul is the FDA’s primary target in their efforts to reduce teen use of e-cigarettes. Juul’s small size and resemblance to a flash drive makes it easy to be discreet, and 81 percent of current youth users stated their main reason for use was the appealing flavors. In response to data such as this and pressure form the FDA, Juul announced in November that it would stop its social media promotion and cease selling all but three of their flavors in retail stores.
Vapers like Svendsen, however, don’t see how that will help.
She said what contributes to the rise in vaping is not the allure of the flavors or even the desire to quit smoking cigarettes, but rather the fact that nicotine is one of the only socially-approved, non-illegal drugs people can consume.
“A good portion of people who were going to smoke cigarettes as part of their rebellious youth are just vaping,” Svendsen said. “It’s a fun drug. Caffeine is a fun drug. Alcohol is a fun drug. It doesn’t matter if it tastes good—people were drinking moonshine during the prohibition era that tasted like shit.” In fact, Svendsen called the whole concept of vaping as a gateway “nonsense.”
“If you’re the kind of person who enjoys recreational substances and enjoys taking risks, it doesn’t really matter if there’s smaller cliffs to jump off of first,” she said. Even if vaping is a gateway drug, it’s only replacing an unhealthier gateway drug that already existed—cigarettes. The concept of vaping as a healthier alternative to smoking is something the FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb corroborated in a statement released in September of this year.
While vaping eliminates the dangers of the harmful chemicals in cigarettes, the dangers of nicotine are still a concern.
According to Truth Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating tobacco use in teens and young adults, one Juul pod contains 20 cigarettes worth of nicotine. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, the area just behind your eyes, develops during adolescence, and consumption of nicotine during this time is known to have lifelong impacts on executive functions such as attention, learning and impulse control.
“If you’re going to smoke something, health-wise, choose vaping over cigarettes, just because of all the carcinogens we know are in cigarettes,” Hammes said. “It’s kind of like if you’re going to drink alcohol, choose maybe red wine—make a better choice.” Health risks and addiction aside, another concern is the cost to those who vape. Svendsen vapes for free thanks to a friend who is an Instagram vape model and sends her the promo products she receives, including her holographic Suorin. But even if she were to pay for it herself, it’s much cheaper than cigarette smoking.
Svendsen said vaping is not only cheaper for her, but more convenient as well.
Vaping has freed her from her constant awareness of how many cigarettes she has left and how close the nearest gas station is to stock up. It’s also taught her she has a tolerance for going without nicotine that she didn’t know she had.
“It makes it so that even if I do forget [the vape], I’m not constantly thinking about needing to go out and buy another one, cause it’s like $25 for these,” Svendsen said. “It makes me think it’d be easier to quit [vaping] than to quit smoking.” Whether that’s true is still up for debate, as e-cigarettes are not yet an FDA-approved smoking cessation tool. A 2014 study published in a scientific journal called Addictive Behaviors found that 89 percent of people who vaped daily were still vaping a year later, though only 6 percent had relapsed into smoking cigarettes.
However, Hammes still has doubts. Whatever the tobacco industry is planning next, they always seem to be five steps ahead of everyone else.