Buyer beware: The potential risks of vape shop purchases go way beyond nicotine addiction
By Emanuel Molla
Even though tobacco and vape shops are rapidly expanding around the country - with a high concentration in Annandale - federal data show vaping has dropped considerably among youth since its peak in 2019.
Vaping opponents warn that teen vaping is still a big problem with more than 2.5 million teens vaping last year, but federal health agencies have issued scarier warnings about some of the other products many parents may not be familiar with that are sold in these and other stores.
Robin Koval, CEO of the nonprofit anti-tobacco and vaping organization, Truth Initiative, says teen vaping remains a “serious public health threat.”
“The industry is playing a dangerous game of ‘catch me if you can’ with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] at the expense of young people’s physical and mental health,” she said.
There is also uneven enforcement of age restrictions for vape stores, which Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, says should be strengthened.
“Like alcohol laws, state tobacco laws are only as good as their enforcement,” said Conley. “If you have 99 stores that are following the law, but one that is not, that alone can be enough to fuel local illicit youth markets.”
Conley said he thinks penalties “for supplying tobacco or nicotine products to minors should be higher, particularly for repeat offenders.”
Here’s a look at the other risky products sold at vape stores, gas stations, and other convenience stores:
Kratom is a plant that naturally grows in Southeast Asia. According to American Addiction Centers, in smaller doses, kratom has proven to replicate stimulant side effects like increased energy levels, alertness, and combat fatigue. However, in larger doses, kratom has been shown to induce opioid-like side effects and symptoms associated with psychosis. Kratom has often been used as a way to reduce withdrawal symptoms associated with opioids and other drugs, but no scientific evidence has proven this to work. Additionally, kratom has been shown to share similarities with other addictive drugs, but not much is known about how addictive kratom can be. Although proponents of kratom have stated that kratom is a natural and safe substance, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In October of 2022, Ethan Pope passed away from an overdose of mitragynine, a psychoactive compound found in kratom. A couple of days before his death, Ethan purchased liquid kratom which is especially dangerous since it provides higher concentrations of mitragynine.
After identifying kratom in 2012, the FDA issued its first warning to consumers to not purchase kratom. Although it is still legal in most parts of the United States, the FDA has taken action to seize kratom from commercial markets. While public awareness of kratom is relatively small, there is a substantial amount of adolescent teen users who’ve reported using kratom. In 2019, over 68,000 adolescents reported that they used kratom at least once.
Delta 8 THC
Delta 8 Tetrahydrocannabinol, simply known as Delta 8 THC, is a psychoactive substance found in cannabis, the plant that is used to also make marijuana and hemp. However, there aren't significant amounts found in the cannabis plant, so the majority of it is manufactured from hemp-derived cannabidiol. Often consumed as an alternative to marijuana, Delta 8 THC can produce similar psychoactive and intoxicating side effects, allowing consumers to get “high”.
Although Delta 8 THC is still legal in many parts of the US, the FDA issued a warning in May 2022, of the potential health effects that may occur when consuming Delta 8 THC such as hallucinations, vomiting, tremors, anxiety, and in rare cases, psychosis. Virginia banned the sale of Delta-8 edibles last year, but stores can sell other forms of the substance.
Sid Theis of College Station, Texas saw his son go through that pain and said that “kids are faced with a dilemma - they don’t want to buy street marijuana, but they are looking for something that appears safer.” After using Delta 8 THC, his son became less engaged in school, had extreme paranoia, and suffered from two psychosis events. When asked about the government's response to Delta 8 THC, he said that “It's sad. To wrap that [Delta 8 THC] up as if it's harmless and can’t do anything is atrocious. Legislators need to be hogtied.”
Hookah, originating many centuries ago in India, is a device that vaporizes specially made tobacco, which is inhaled through water pipes. Often seen as a safer alternative to cigarette smoking, smoking with hookahs share many of the same health risks, and can be more dangerous to use. Hookah users can inhale 100-200 times the amount of smoke that can be inhaled from one cigarette. Furthermore, the juices in tobacco can irritate the mouth and increase the risk of oral cancers.
As the popularity of hookah continues to increase, its use among high school students continues to worry public health officials. In a report by the CDC, 1 in every 100 high school students used hookah in 2022. Although hookah is legal in the United States, the FDA and the CDC have warned that its long-term effects can be devastating, and have advised abstaining from using hookah.
Although E-cigarettes remain the most used substance by high school students, it's still important to know about the dangers that arise with other legal products that are easily found in many parts of the United States.
“You walk into these vape shops and they sell and push other not-good substances,” Sid Theis said. People think, “Sure, why not?”
Emanuel Molla is a rising junior at Annandale High School in Annandale, Va. He worked on this story with Youthcast Media Group’s journalist-mentors during the 2022-23 school year.