Student Group Holds First Vape Pen Exchanges, Spreads Awareness on Campus

students and staff pose for a photo at the vape pen exchange table Image by Ed Brennen
Healthy H.A.W.K.S. members, from left, Sara Feinstein, Morgan Francese, Advisor Tracy Moore, Coordinator Jeremy Laporte and River Hawk Shop Director Ginger Delfino man the vape pen exchange table at University Crossing.

By Ed Brennen

Corey started vaping two years ago but was “feeling unhealthy about it.” Anne had been vaping for about a year but noticed her lungs “weren’t performing at the same level” when she went running.

Both students, who only wanted to give their first names, say they had “pretty much” kicked their vaping habits. When they learned they could exchange their vape pens for some UMass Lowell gear recently at University Crossing, they decided to stop by and part ways with their devices once and for all.

“Since I had it around, the temptation would still be there sometimes, and I would use it,” says Corey, who traded in two vape pens for a UML sweatshirt and T-shirt. “So why not just get rid of it and be done with it for good?”

That’s precisely the kind of response the event’s organizer – the peer health education student group Healthy H.A.W.K.S. (Health Advocates With Knowledge & Skills) – was hoping for by holding the university’s first “Escape the Vape” exchange program.

“Students are realizing now that vaping is actually really harmful and they want to find ways to quit,” says graduate student Morgan Francese, a native of Pittsfield, who is helping advise Healthy H.A.W.K.S. this year as part of her field work for her master’s degree in higher education administration. “This is an opportunity for them to take the first step and anonymously come up and let go of their vape pens.”

A student holds some of the collected vape pens Image by Ed Brennen
Grad student Morgan Francese holds the vape pens collected during Day 2 of the "Escape the Vape" program at Cumnock Hall.

Over the course of two days – one hour in front of the River Hawk Shop at University Crossing and one hour at the entrance of the Cumnock Marketplace on North Campus – Healthy H.A.W.K.S. members collected 14 vaping devices from students. They also handed out “quit cards” designed by Francese highlighting apps people can use to help them kick their vaping habits.

More than 50 students who don’t vape also stopped by the tables to enter a raffle for a free massage at the Campus Recreation Center and pick up quit cards for others.

“It’s nice to see that the campus is concerned about it,” says Anne, who learned about the event from her resident advisor on Instagram and traded in her vape pen for a River Hawks T-shirt. “It’s a habitual thing that gets expensive quickly, so if I don’t have any access to it, that will be a big help.”

The university bookstore donated $500 worth of sweatshirts, T-shirts and hats to the exchange program.

“Knowing people who have been hurt from smoking and vaping, it was easy to say ‘yes’ to helping this,” says River Hawk Shop Director Ginger Delfino.

“It’s good that people are getting educated and making good choices for themselves instead of falling into peer pressure.” -Healthy H.A.W.K.S. leader Adiba Mamoon

The “Escape the Vape” exchange is just the latest step taken at the university to fight tobacco use and vaping. The campus became smoke- and tobacco-free in 2014 following a student-driven campaign. Last fall, UML nursing students partnered with local communities to educate teens and their parents on the dangers of vaping. And Manning School of Business student Matt Murphy has become a national voice on anti-vaping issues.

The exchange program comes on the heels of a recent spike in deaths nationwide due to vaping-related illnesses.

One day before the first event, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 34 deaths had been confirmed in 24 states due to cases of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI). There were 1,604 cases of EVALI reported to the CDC from every state except Alaska.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a public health emergency in late September and ordered a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products and devices in the state. As of late October, there had been two deaths in Massachusetts attributed to the use of nicotine vaping products.

As the Wellness Center’s director of health education and promotion, Tracy Moore speaks with first-year seminar students about topics such as vaping.

A student enters the massage raffle at the vape exchange table Image by Ed Brennen
A student enters the raffle for a free massage at the Campus Rec Center at the "Escape the Vape" table while Health H.A.W.K.S. Jeremy Laporte and Morgan Francese look on.

“Many of them think it’s benign or that they’re making a better choice than smoking cigarettes, but there’s a lot more research available on cigarettes,” says Moore, who is the founder and advisor to Healthy H.A.W.K.S. “We wanted to give students an alternative. Maybe they’ve invested in a vape pen and now they’re stuck with it after reading news of how detrimental it can be to their health.”

Moore, who turned over the vape pens to the UMass Lowell Police Department for disposal, says Healthy H.A.W.K.S. plans to host more exchanges in the future.

“We’re really excited by the student response,” says graduate student Adiba Mamoon of Boxborough, who is serving as head of Healthy H.A.W.K.S. this year.

Mamoon, who is pursuing her master’s degree in biotechnology and plans to apply to medical school next year, has noticed that incoming freshmen seem to have a better awareness about the dangers of vaping.

“A few years ago, vaping was just a casual thing to do and no one blinked an eye,” she says. “It’s good that people are getting educated and making good choices for themselves instead of falling into peer pressure.

“Giving up your vape can be hard for some people, because it’s a daily thing you do,” Mamoon adds. “But giving up that daily thing will be easier tomorrow when they don’t have their vape.”