Louisiana youth are vaping at an increasing pace, raising concerns among health experts that the search for nicotine might one day reverse a decades-long drop in cigarette consumption.
Caleb Beck’s nicotine habit started at 17 with an electronic cigarette.
Because vaping is relatively new, scientists don't know the full health impact of e-cigarettes over the long term, especially compared to smoking. The seemingly benign lure of fun flavors could develop into an insatiable nicotine addiction.
Nikko Melancon, a young vaper, developed a fascination with smoking because of his grandparents. He recalls sneaking cigarettes from them as he grew up, but it wasn’t until he was 14 and still in middle school in Baton Rouge that he became a regular smoker. Soon, he was burning up a pack a day.
At 17, after striking out at two Baton Rouge high schools, he spent several months in Carville in the Louisiana National Guard’s Youth Challenge Program, hoping to accelerate his way out of school. He no longer had access to cigarettes and his body wasn’t happy.
“It wasn’t good,” Melancon recalled.
He decided to give up smoking entirely. Soon, in addition to coughing, he had the shakes from the nicotine withdrawal.
After he left Carville, Melancon he saw friends using e-cigarettes. He soon left tobacco behind and now evangelizes for vaping.
“These are way healthier for your lungs and your mind and your skin and your teeth,” he said.
On a recent afternoon at the Perkins Road skate park, Melancon, now 18, took occasional drags on a modified e-cigarette known as a Vape Mod, as he watched other skaters. His friend John Covington, 18, watched with him and told a similar story.
“I smoked cigarettes and vaped,” said Covington. “But I’ve made the transition to only vaping.”
He wasn’t as big a user as his friend, only getting up to half a pack a day of cigarettes, but it was enough to have the occasional coughing bout. Like Melancon, he feels healthier these days. But he said vaping is just a better experience.
“I like the flavor and I feel the buzz more, it’s a lot cleaner,” he said.
“It’s straight nicotine instead of all those chemicals that make you sick,” Melancon agreed. “(Cigarettes) give you a headache after you smoke like two. But this you can hit constantly and you’d only feel like a nicotine buzz. And it’s slight, it’s not like overpowering and the juice is still with you.”
The two say they are slowly ratcheting down the nicotine content of their e-cigarettes, with the idea of eventually eliminating nicotine entirely. But neither seems in a hurry.
In Louisiana, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show combustible cigarette use as has fallen as e-cigarette use has skyrocketed. In 2017, about 13.5 percent of high school students reported smoking, down from 21.8 percent in 2011.
But Dr. James Kent Treadway Jr., a New Orleans-based pediatrician, and other health experts fear people will jump from vaping to cigarettes, seeking a nicotine hit from wherever.
"For kids already doing it, quitting tobacco is extremely difficult," he said. "We're trying to prevent that addiction from even happening."
Health experts have called the recent surge in underage vaping an epidemic that threatens the long-term health of children and teens.
The e-cigarettes’ various flavors have proven a draw for young smokers, allowing users to try graham cracker one week, green apple the next. Data outline their popularity:
According to the Louisiana Youth Tobacco Survey, one out of every eight Louisiana high school students regularly used e-cigarettes in 2017, above the national average and up from one out of every 50 in 2011, the first year for which data are available.
More recent national data suggest usage continues to surge. Among high school students, vaping jumped 78 percent in 2018 from a year earlier. Middle school vaping rose 48 percent over the same period, according to data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
“These data shock my conscience,” Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said in November, calling teen vaping an "epidemic."
The jump in teen vaping this year represents the biggest one-year spike of any kind of drug use, even of opioids or marijuana, in 44 years, according to the Monitoring the Future survey, which focuses on addiction.
The most popular e-cigarette recently has been the Juul, a sleek device shaped like a USB flash drive.
Like other e-cigarettes, Juul is a battery-powered device that heats a nicotine-containing liquid to produce an aerosol, or vapor, or vape. Recently, Juuls accounted for more than 70 percent of e-cigarette sales in the U.S. and are becoming well known to teachers and other educators.
H. Aaron Ambeau, a counselor at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, said he was first introduced to Juuls when he discovered one on the floor of the school's hallway.
"I’ve heard from a couple of schools that students are using them in the bathroom," Ambeau said. "It’s just hard to monitor that. You can’t have an adult hanging out in the bathroom all the time; it’s just impossible."
While Juul Labs, the maker of Juul, and other e-cigarette makers insist that their focus is on helping adults quit smoking, there’s plenty about e-cigarettes that appears enticing to children and teens.
Convenience stores and vape shops are filled with e-juices containers festooned with cartoons and colorful lettering. They come with names like "Coco Pops" and "Crunch Time," which mimic Cocoa Puffs and Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereals. "Straw-burst" vaping liquid comes close to Starburst candy.
For its part, Juul offers popular flavors like creme — formerly creme brulee — and cucumber — formerly cool cucumber — alongside traditional menthol and tobacco flavors.
The variety of taste is clearly a big draw for vapers.
“This tastes amazing,” Melancon said. “When you’re vaping, it tastes like juice and like fruits, vegetables, some of them taste like cotton candy.
The FDA has taken notice. In his statement in November about Juul, Gottlieb said the sweet tastes and colorful advertisements were never aimed at heavily addicted adult smokers, but at teenagers and kids.
He accused Juul of being particularly aggressive, saying the FDA planned to investigate whether the company intentionally targeted youth in its marketing.
For its part, Juul says it is cooperating with the FDA. The company wants its product to serve as a way for smokers to drop cigarettes, it says, not the other way around.
"We want to be part of the solution in keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people," Juul Chief Executive Kevin Burns said in a September news release.
The FDA intends to bar the sale of e-cigarette flavors from gas stations and other convenience stores, where teens might find them easily. Juul says it will produce only tobacco-, menthol- and mint-flavored products and drop popular flavors like mango and creme.
The Louisiana Legislature has expanded a ban on smoking and vaping in elementary and secondary school buildings to include on-campus playgrounds and school buses, but concerns remain that teens aren't aware e-cigarettes contain as much nicotine as they do. A Juul cartridge can contain the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
According to Treadway, regardless of the delivery method, the impact of that much nicotine on young people’s brains and bodies is disturbing.
At the LA Vape & Beyond store on Perkins Road, you can’t buy Juuls, but glass cases are filled with competing e-cigarettes in a wide variety of shapes and styles. And stacked high along the walls of the Baton Rouge store are long rows of e-juices with names like “Peachy Rings” and “Blue Razz” beckon consumers.
Adjoining the shop is a vape lounge. Such lounges have grown in popularity in Baton Rouge after the city-parish in 2017 banned smoking, including e-cigarettes, in bars and casinos.
Here padded seats surround two pool tables as flat screen TVs stare down from above. A small crowd of customers dragged on their e-cigarettes while rain poured down on rush hour traffic passing by slowly in the dark.
Casey Vidrine, who works at the Baton Rouge store, said his store focuses on serious vapers, those who want to take advantage of the full range of options. A former smoker, he remembers the difference when he switched from cigarettes to vaping six years ago.
“I was pretty excited that I could taste my food,” Vidrine said. “That was a huge thing, breathing and actually tasting my food. Not coughing. No headaches in the morning.”
While he said, he’s slowly lowered his nicotine to low levels, he has no plans to quit entirely: he said he just enjoys vaping too much.
State law prohibits e-cigarette sales to those 18 and under and Vidrine said LA Vape has to turn away the occasional 17-year-old who tries their luck. The store even turns away older customers if there’s something wrong with their legal ID, he said.
But he knows that’s little deterrent given how easy it is for underage customers to obtain e-cigarettes online or via older friends.
Vidrine said teenagers are often are ill-informed about the differences in the available e-cigarettes and are often flying blind online: “Sometimes you can have too much nicotine in a device. It’s worrying.”
Lester Joseph, now 21, was still in high school when vaping was becoming popular, but “I never knew anyone who did it.” So, he took up dipping instead, a habit he took with him into the Marine Corps. Once in the military, though, he noticed more and more people vaping so he gave it a try. He said he won’t go back. And his switch came with an unexpected benefit.
“I’ll tell you this, a girl doesn’t want to kiss you if you have (dip) in your mouth,” Joseph said. “But if you have a vape, they sometimes want to hit it with you.”
Advocate staff writer Nick Reimann contributed to this report.