By Philip Haldiman
On a recent Tuesday, a Maricopa County justice court in Surprise was comfortably packed with more than a dozen people, many of them minors accepting responsibility for violations such as curfew, underage drinking and tobacco possession.
It is the latter offense that has been seeing some serious traffic within the regional courtroom — turns out, more West Valley children are being cited for underage tobacco due to the to rise in the popularity of vaping devices and e-cigarettes.
The American Cancer Society and Food and Drug Administration have stated underage vaping is an “epidemic” and it is cropping up in Peoria.
RELATED: Wismer: Kids, put down the vape, e-cigarette, avoid criminal citation
Use of e-cigarettes, also known as vaping, by high school students has jumped 78% since 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it has jumped 48% among middle schoolers.
Since 2016, the Arrowhead Justice Court, which covers Sun City, central and northern Peoria and northern Glendale, has seen 176 cases of underage tobacco possession, largely in the form of an electronic smoking device.
Citations have increased nearly 10-fold since 2016 and nearly doubled since 2017.
This is an increase of more than 890% since 2016 and nearly 190% since 2017.
Arrowhead Justice of the Peace Craig Wismer said he was unpleasantly surprised when he discovered these statistics.
Mr. Wismer conducts most of the juvenile advisory hearings at the Arrowhead Justice Court and, therefore, sees most of the complaints filed involving juvenile defendants.
He said appearing in court to answer to criminal charges, including possession of a vaping device or tobacco product, probably constitutes a significant, negative event in anyone’s life, and should probably take on an added degree of importance for someone who is under the age of 18 and has their parents in-tow.
“I’m not confident that kids are aware of the fact that possession of a vaping device or tobacco product constitutes a violation of criminal statutes in Arizona. Or, if somehow they were aware of this, that it resonated with them or entered into their thought process when they chose to engage in the activity that led to the issuance of a criminal citation,” he said. “I suspect most kids think of criminal charges applying to adults, not them or members of their teenage peer group.”
The reality of vaping emerges
Last month, the FDA released a new policy restricting e-cigarette sales on the many fruity flavors the organization says is “firmly and directly” related to the teen use “epidemic.”
Aside from flavor, hip and appealing smoking devices have also become increasingly popular with youths, according to a 2018 study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
The FDA has taken a hard-line approach on addressing the rising trend of youth nicotine use through smoking devices after long-term declines in traditional cigarette use among minors.
Dr. Frank LoVeccho, a professor at University of Arizona, said underage vaping is certainly an important issue, so much so that the FDA is increasing regulations. He said one of the difficulties in medicine is understanding how drugs and toxins affect children and young adults.
E-cigarettes, or vapor cigarettes, do not burn tobacco, but have cartridges filled with nicotine and other chemicals that are heated into a vapor and inhaled.
Mr. LoVeccho said nicotine is very addictive and can slow brain development in teens and affect memory, concentration, learning, self-control, and attention. He said it also can affect mood, which can increase the risk of other types of addiction later in life or lead to a long-term nicotine addiction.
The long-term affects of vaping have yet to be known, he said.
“When cigarettes started, doctors recommended them for asthma and to assist in breathing. It took a few generations to see all the cancers and associated problems,” he said. “We need to wait and see if vaping is associated with cancer and lung disease.”
Public Health England, an agency of the United Kingdom’s government states vaping is 95% less harmful than tobacco, not as harmful as smoking, and a good way to quit.
Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said despite increases in use, misinformation about vaping products is prevalent in youth.
He said his nonprofit advocates for sensible regulation of vaping products and does not represent the industry or serve as spokespeople for the industry.
Mr. Conley said vaping products are attractive to some youth for many of the same reasons adult smokers use them to quit — the products deliver nicotine without the tar, smell, and bad taste associated with cigarettes.
Flavors are very important in helping adult smokers disconnect from the taste of tobacco, although some flavor names and packaging are undoubtedly irresponsible, which is something the FDA has been actively policing, he said.
“Many of the same teens who are willing to experiment with vaping products are the same risk-seeking teens who will also try marijuana, alcohol, or even cigarettes. Since nicotine is a mild stimulant, the nicotine ‘hit’ can be particularly attractive among students with depression,” he said. “In a perfect world, no teen would smoke, vape, use marijuana, or drink alcohol. But we do not live in a perfect world. The fact that we have seen an unprecedented decline in teen smoking of 50% since 2011, which is when teens really began to experiment with vaping products, will have far greater public health benefits in the future than any negatives associated with vaping.”
On the ground-level
Peoria law enforcement and school district officials say they are experiencing an increase in underage vaping throughout the community.
It is illegal if a person knowingly sells, gives or furnishes an e-cigarette or vaping device, according to Arizona state law.
The fine for a minor in possession of a tobacco vapor product is not less than $100 or not less than 30 hours of community service.
Brandon Sheffert, a spokesman for the Peoria Police Department, said minors obtain devices illegally through a variety of means — adults, parents or friends purchasing them for them, others giving them away, purchase using a fake ID, purchase through online retailers that do not require an ID to purchase, or other ways.
He also said it varies how a minor may come to be cited — usage at school, during an investigation of another crime, or other ways.
“It truly varies,” he said. “We are however targeting our education efforts on educating students and parents of the dangers.”
If a Peoria Unified School District student is caught with an e-cigarette or vaping device, consequences could include a three-day suspension for the first offense, five-day suspension for the second offense and nine-day suspension for the third offense.
PUSD spokeswoman Danielle Airey said the district is seeing an uptick at Sunrise Mountain and Liberty high schools, and are proactively taking measures to reduce the use among students, particularly in partnership with the district’s school resource officers (SRO), sworn police officers tasked with policing district schools.
Ms. Airey said it is hard to determine when students are vaping because the smoke is odorless.
She said the district is committed to protecting the safety and well-being of all students and want to make sure students are aware of the dangers of vaping or using any other substances that could be harmful.
The district recently hosted a parent forum where an SRO spoke about underage vaping with parent representatives from almost all district schools.
“It’s important that we stay ahead of the curve and that’s where we rely heavily on the partnership we have with our SRO’s. With one on every campus, they provide support to staff in identifying trends and providing insight on what to look for in students who may be vaping,” Ms. Airey said.
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @philiphaldiman.
Underage Vaping citations
Since 2016, the Arrowhead Justice Court, which covers Sun City, central and northern Peoria and northern Glendale, has seen 176 cases of underage tobacco possession, largely in the form of a smoking device. Citations have increased nearly 10-fold since 2016 and nearly doubled since 2017. This is an increase of about 900% since 2016 and 188% since 2017.