High school bathrooms have never smelled better. Unfortunately, the watermelon, mint and mango scents aren't a sign the custodial staff is testing a new air freshener. Rather, the pleasant odor signals a troubling new trend among teenagers -- juuling.

In an era where teenage fads move ten times faster than parental awareness, juuling -- the name given to the use of small, easily concealable e-cigarette pens -- is especially concerning.

Juuling kits -- named for one of the most popular brands of vape pens -- are priced at a $49.99, which gets you a vape pen, a charger and four "flavor pods." A toke on the pen heats a cartridge containing oils to create vapor, which quickly dissipates. The pens themselves look like a large thumb drive, simple enough to use in a school bathroom and easy to hide in a pocket or backpack. 

"It really could be used anywhere," Peabody Veterans Memorial High School Principal Eric Buckley told reporter Mary Markos. "Some even look like eye liner. To get caught with that, you have to be pretty obvious. The person has to have it in hand."

The practice is taking off in high school bathrooms across the country. Peg Sallade, project director of Danvers Cares, said recent studies indicate more than 16 percent of high school students are using vaping products. That number, she said, "seems to be increasing."

Lest one think the worries over the practice is another case of pearl clutching over a youthful practice that grownups simply don't understand, there are real health concerns. While the liquids in the vape pens are often fruit-flavored, some contain nicotine and others THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

In a 2016 blog post, Dr. John Ross, a hospitalist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, outlined many potential problems with vaping, especially among young people:

 

-- Nicotine in e-ecigarettes may lead to insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, increased heart rate and blood pressure, attention deficit disorder and poor impulse control;

-- "Many e-liquids have candy and fruit flavoring and packaging that makes them attractive to children," Ross wrote. "Cases of nicotine poisoning from e-liquid have skyrocketed, with accidental ingestions of e-liquid by kids rising by 1,500 percent in the past three years."

-- Flavored vape water often contains the chemical compound diacetyl, which has been linked to the disease bronchiolitis obliterans, which damages airways in the lungs.

-- Propylene glycol and glycerol, the major components of e-liquids, "may decompose when heated by the vaporizer, and be transformed into toxic compounds such as formaldehyde," Ross wrote. "This is more common with newer vaporizers that use high wattages."

And, make no mistake, kids are a target market.

“The same advertising tactics the tobacco industry used years ago to get kids addicted to nicotine are now being used to entice a new generation of young people to use e-cigarettes,” Dr. Tom Frieden, then director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters after the agency released findings of a study on the topic in 2016. 

“During 2011 to 2014, current e-cigarette use among high school students soared from 1.5 percent to 13.4 percent, and among middle school students from 0.6 percent to 3.9 percent,” the CDC said in its report. "At the same time, spending on e-cigarette ads rose from $6.4 million to $115 million.

The practice recalls the days of old, when tobacco and confectionery companies collaborated on "candy cigarettes," cheap sugar cigarette lookalikes meant to introduce kids to the smoking habit.

So what to do? Well, lawmakers must do a better job ensuring the laws that apply to marketing cigarettes to kids are updated to reflect vaping.

More importantly, however, educators and parents must catch up to the trend.

Encouragingly, educators are updating school policy to make it clear that e-cigarettes are barred on school grounds, and that using them carries consequences. Schools have also worked to educate parents, letting them know their children may be at risk.

"If you showed somebody on the street, your average adult who has never smoked before, and said, 'Do you know what this is?' They probably wouldn’t have an idea of what it was at all," said Buckley, the Peabody principal.

Here's hoping that changes soon.

Recommended for you