By Karen Angelo
Vaping is cool. Everyone does it. It’s safer than smoking.
This is the feedback that nursing students have received from local teenagers about inhaling e-cigarettes.
Now, those students are trying to shatter these myths in the towns of Billerica, Tewksbury and Dracut by educating teens on the dangers of vaping.
In October 2018, the Dracut Board of Health voted to ban the sales of tobacco and e-cigarettes to anyone under 21 years old. Although Massachusetts raised the age from 18 to 21 to purchase tobacco products, the state law grandfathered in smokers between the ages of 18 and 20.
“It was important to us in the town of Dracut to close this gap,” says Dave Ouellette, the town’s health agent. “The higher age requirement of purchasing tobacco products should help reduce tobacco use among teenagers, but education is necessary as well.”
That’s where UMass Lowell nursing students in community health and policy classes come in.
Working with Ouellette since the fall, the nursing students researched the health risks of vaping and communicated the science to parents, citizens and teenagers through a series of meetings at town hall and in classrooms.
Before the town vote last October, Shannon Cole, Paulette Renault Caragianes, Sovanna Sor and Katie Fitzgerald presented the science of the health risks of e-cigarettes to parents at town hall as part of their community-focused health and policy class.
“Our professors encouraged us to investigate our surrounding communities to identify a public-health dilemma that we felt we could make an impact on as registered nurses in the R.N.-to-B.S. program in the School of Nursing,” says Cole. “We chose vaping as an issue, because we all felt that this was an area in which we could make a difference.”
Across the U.S., vaping is surging among young people. For instance, the proportion of high school seniors who reported vaping nicotine jumped to 20.9 percent in 2018, up from 11 percent in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In December 2018, the Office of the Surgeon General declared vaping a health epidemic.
Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the addictive drug in regular cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products. Studies show that nicotine exposure during adolescence can harm the developing brain – which continues to develop until about age 25. It can also impact learning, memory and attention.
“Vaping is an important issue to work on because of the general lack of knowledge regarding the dangers of e-cigarettes and the false sense that it is safer than using traditional tobacco products,” says Cole. “We found that those who vape are four times as likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes, and 10 percent of middle and high school youth are vaping regularly.”
‘I now realize the importance of public outreach to prevent health issues before they become a problem.’
-Nursing student Joseph Bradstreet
A second group of nursing students in the community health-focused project course worked with Ouellette to design an anti-vaping education campaign. Joseph Bradstreet, Shelagh Fitzgerald, Taylor Polomarenko, Geoffrey Rowe and Eric Wakim researched the health risks of vaping. Their presentation to sophomores in health and wellness classes at Dracut High School included videos on the dangerous effects of vaping, such as respiratory and lung disease, addiction to nicotine and oral infections.
“We’re also creating posters and flyers to distribute in the high school to promote the negative impacts of vaping,” says Bradstreet. “We are able to relate to the students, since we’re not that much older than they are. We understand the temptations and peer pressure, so our hope is that they will hear us and either don’t start vaping or stop.”
Ouellette says that the professionalism of the students and their work is making an impact.
“All of the students have been terrific to work with,” he says. “They are helping Dracut attack the vaping public health crisis. It’s a priority for the town manager, superintendent of schools, parents and teenagers. We thank the UML students for collaborating with us to improve the health of our youth.”
Two other groups of nursing students in the same course taught by Asst. Prof. Mazen El Ghaziri are working with the towns of Billerica and Tewksbury on similar anti-vaping campaigns.
Students who volunteered in nurses’ offices in Billerica learned that the Juul brand of e-cigarettes is the most concerning type because of its appeal to youth. Resembling flash drives and containing flavors such as mint and mango, Juuls deliver about 200 puffs per cartridge, which is about as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. The students are sharing the facts to teens in Billerica High School health classes.
In Tewksbury, four nursing students identified the problem of increased vaping among the town’s youth through research. Then, to try to counter the trend, the nursing students created an e-cigarette “Jeopardy”-type game, using facts from the U.S. Surgeon General, to present to eighth grade classes.
“It’s important for our future nurses to understand the importance of community engagement to make an impact on people’s lives and reduce health disparities,” says El Ghaziri. “All of our nursing students did a great job conducting community assessments, collaborating with town and school officials and implementing projects that appeal to young people and meet their identified needs.”
The students say their projects are helping them build the skills they need to work effectively with community leaders, parents and teenagers.
“Having this real-world experience has been eye-opening and really makes me excited to see what kind of impact our group can make as nurses when we graduate,” says Bradstreet. “I now realize the importance of public outreach to prevent health issues before they become a problem. Patients wouldn’t need to be treated if they had never vaped in the first place.”
Cole, a veteran who plans on working at the U.S. Veterans Health Administration as a nurse once she graduates, says that the experience she gained on the anti-vaping project helped her understand the power of prevention.
“Working on this project has given me a new perspective,” says Cole. “I had never worked with a public health agent before, so to see things from his point of view was very enlightening. I thoroughly enjoyed working on a project that made a tangible difference to people’s lives.”