Routt County students push back against e-cigarette industry |

Routt County students push back against e-cigarette industry

A sudden increase in vaping-related deaths being reported in the U.S, has motivated students in Routt County to speak up and fight back against a multi-billion-dollar industry that primarily targets their demographic.
Rachel Kandzierski with Grand Futures/courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As national headlines proliferate on the new and potentially deadly effects of vaping, students at local schools are pushing back.

At least eight people in the U.S. have died from vaping-related illnesses, and health officials believe there have been more than 500 reports of lung illness connected to the use of vaping devices or e-cigarettes.

Lindsey Simbeye, executive director of Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, said she’s saddened by the deaths but not surprised.

Simbeye and her organization have undertaken an intensive effort over the past year to educate both students and adults in Routt County about the dangers of vaping.

There are so many chemicals in the cartridges, Simbeye said, and additives like diacetyl, which isn’t harmful until heated but can be very damaging to the lungs once ignited in a vape pen.

There are also high concentrations of nicotine, which can be cytotoxic, or toxic to living cells. 

Simbeye noted that nicotine has been found in brands that claim to be nicotine-free.

One study looked at five popular e-cigarette brands that contain a toxic chemical called pulegone, a carcinogen that can cause liver and kidney failure.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Physiology, the chemical flavorings and additives in e-cigarettes can potentially cause more damage to the lungs than traditional cigarettes.

Simbeye hopes the recent deaths at least open eyes by helping people see how harmful e-cigarettes may be and put a spotlight on the dishonesty of the massive marketing campaign, which, just like Big Tobacco did for decades, spends millions of dollars to convince people their products are safe.

The good news is that young people aren’t just becoming more aware of the dangers of e-cigarettes — they are aware they are the prime targets of a massive marketing campaign to hook new users.

And, they’re finding ways they can have a voice to tell those companies they won’t sacrifice their health for the bottom line of billion-dollar corporations.

The rapid rise of vaping took everyone by surprise, notes Lindsay Kohler, a social worker in the Hayden schools.

“All of us who work with kids are educating ourselves,” Kohler said.

Kohler described work she is doing in Hayden as part of the UpRISE program to help students become more aware of the downside of vaping.

Steamboat middle school student pens letter to JUUL

Dear JUUL Pod Company,

You all have invented a great way to make money, but what you don’t realize is that you are ruining kids’ lives just so you can make money. That is not right! In my grade (sixth) there is already at least 10 kids that have tried it and at least five addicted.

Those kids have a JUUL pod every day after school benefitting you guys but making them that much poorer and giving them that much more reasons to be addicted. THIS IS WRONG! Not only are they set up very poorly for life mentally but who knows about the physical effects.

Just yesterday I heard a JUUL pod commercial followed by an ad with little stuffed animals saying that they don’t know the short-term or long-term effects of it. I know this probably sounds like I am just some little kid mad about something, but I promise you this is much more.

People are dying from your product, but just like it is no big deal, you continue to make it and affect other people’s health. So next time you are selling a box just think about this, and if this does not affect you then go ahead, but if you truly care about others, you will call off the deal.


Zoe Anfang

Steamboat Springs Middle School sixth-grader

UpRISE is a movement of youth coalitions that “seeks to address substance use among their peers at the root of the problem.” It’s backed by a $1.8 million grant from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Kohler said there is an increase in vaping citations in Hayden, and younger and younger kids are being exposed to the trend.

Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found youth in Colorado are vaping nicotine at twice the national average. Colorado had the highest vaping rate of 37 states surveyed.

At Soroco High School, students have been spreading their message on local radio stations.

In one recent PSA, five Soroco students went on air to make five key points:

  1. Advertisements target high school students with colorful designs and fun flavors.
  2. Even though people think it’s healthier than cigarettes, it’s not.
  3. Nicotine is toxic, and it isn’t just water vapor they are inhaling: it’s aerosol.
  4. Some vaping products contain diacetyl.
  5. The numbers are significant: 27% of high school students reported using a vape pod in the past 30 days.

In another radio announcement, the Soroco students role-play. One asks, “Hey can you hook us up with some of the vape stuff?” Another answers, “That stuff isn’t cool.”

“Why?” the first student asks. “It’s just water vapor and nicotine.”

“Yea, but nicotine is toxic,” another student chimes in. “And the amount of nicotine in a JUUL pod is equivalent to an entire pack of cigarettes. And nicotine can slow brain development and have a negative impact on concentration, self-control and your mood.”

There’s been significant movement to combat vaping on both the political and retailer fronts in recent weeks.

Last week, Walmart announced it would stop selling cartridges, pods and all vaping-related products due to “growing federal, state and local regulatory complexity and uncertainty regarding e-cigarettes.”

The Centers for Disease Control have advised people to stop vaping, and the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning to JUUL, the largest American e-cigarette brand, to stop advertising its product as a safe way to quit smoking. 

Juul currently holds more than 75% of shares in the e-cigarette market, a market expected to be worth $86.43 billion by 2025.

A group of U.S. Senators just urged the Food and Drug Administration to “immediately remove” all cartridge-based e-cigarettes from the market.

“Make no mistake: none of the e-cigarettes, including cartridge based e-cigarettes, currently on the market have gone through the FDA approval process,” the senators wrote in a letter to federal regulators. “They are hooking our children on nicotine at alarming rates.”

The short- and long-term health effects are not known, Simbeye said, and given the recent spate of deaths, they may be much more terrifying than anyone imagined.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” she said. “That’s where we’re at with vaping.”

While the FDA is beginning to regulate, Simbeye notes companies have a grace period to comply, and in the meantime, the potentially dangerous ingredients remain.

She said the battle to regulate is not unlike the history of the tobacco industry, which was able to stave off regulation and hide and deny the deadliness of their product for decades.

And there is overlap in the industries — some of the tobacco giants are investing in e-cigarettes to shore up their profits against declining tobacco sales.

Despite the prevention efforts underway, Simbeye said those results likely won’t yet be evident, as the height of the epidemic may not be reached yet.

“We had almost overcome youth smoking,” Simbeye said. “We’d almost eradicated it. Now, all of the sudden, a new generation is starting to use nicotine again in a big way, at much higher levels of concentration.”

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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