Two and a half million middle and high school students vape, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Drug Administration. The latest state surveys in Massachusetts show 18% of high school students are vaping.
Creed Stilwell never thought his occasional vaping habit would do so much harm -- almost costing him his life. The now 19-year-old was a varsity athlete who inhaled his first vape when he was a sophomore in high school. Last December he suffered severe respiratory failure and was on life support for weeks after being med-flighted from Vermont to Brigham and Women’s in Boston.
“My mindset was always I don’t do it that much so really if anybody’s going to get affected by it it’s not going to be me. It was a scary experience to say the least,” said Stilwell.
Tears welled in his mom Mary Beth’s eyes as she looked back on the horrific experience.
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“I asked them when I could breathe again and they said well if he makes it, which they weren’t sure he would, that I could start breathing when he was off that last machine,” she recalled.
Another teen from Massachusetts spoke anonymously to the NBC10 Investigators, saying she began vaping to fit in at school.
“I would say I began in eighth grade which is when it was first introduced to me. Definitely freshman year though I started buying them for myself and like use them more regularly,” she said.
The teen also told us even though she’s seen the impact vaping has had on her health and the health of others, it’s still tough to quit.
“Quitting is definitely something I wish I had like thought about before I started because once you start, it’s very hard to stop,” she said.
While she’s hooked on vapes at the age of 17, many kids are taking hits even earlier.
The town of Stoughton launched a diversion program at the O’Donnell Middle School for students caught vaping, with vape products or other drug paraphernalia. The goal is to offer support and to help them learn from their experience.
Prevention Coordinator Stephanie Patton told us they have seen kids as young as sixth grade vaping at school.
“We wanted to think about an opportunity for kids to have kind of like psycho-educational way to learn from their experience and to grow because our goal really is to treat this as a public health issue and to help students figure out and think about their choices and their decisions and move on from a mistake,” Patton said.
The diversion program is voluntary and lessens any discipline for students who enroll.
Students in the program meet with Patton, school administrators, a school nurse, other staff and a school resource officer. That diverse team gives them different perspectives about decision-making and the risks of vaping.
Stoughton Police Officer Lindsay Bonda, who is the school resource officer at the middle school, said, "Most of these kids have no idea what they’re putting inside their body so part of the diversion program is to teach them really about what they are using and how it could potentially be harmful for them now and in the future."
Massachusetts banned the retail sale of flavored tobacco products, including vaping products, limited sales to people 21 and older and added an excise tax in response to the vaping crisis years ago. Since then, the black market has flourished with state investigators seizing almost 107,000 vapes that were smuggled into Massachusetts illegally in 2021 alone.
The Massachusetts teen we spoke with said kids get the vapes from older siblings, friends, parents and some older looking teens walk into stores and buy them.
The impact of vaping can be seen every day inside Boston Children’s Hospital. The hospital has had more than 300 kids referred to its Pulmonary Complications of Vaping Program since it began in late 2019 at the height of the crisis.
Dr. Alicia Casey, the program’s director, said the youngest patient to be seen at the clinic is 11 years old. Creed Stilwell is a patient in the program.
“We do have patients who have been very seriously ill and as long as they stop vaping their lung function does get better after the injury. But we’re noticing some changes in lung function that makes us very worried about what we are going to see ten, twenty, thirty, forty years down the road,” said Casey.
Creed went from running sprints on the field to fighting for his life in the ICU. Now his lungs are still recovering, he’s unable to walk far or climb stairs without getting winded. Creed told us he realizes he’s incredibly lucky and when asked what he would tell his sixteen-year-old self he answered, “Don’t vape.”
Resources on vaping for parents and students
Vaping | Boston Children's Hospital (childrenshospital.org)