By Prudence Brighton
DRACUT -- Health Agent David Ouellette is on a mission to snuff out nicotine use by the town's teenagers.
The Board of Health has approved a proposed anti-nicotine campaign. Now, Ouellette is collaborating with nursing students at UMass Lowell to implement a teen-to-teen anti-vaping program in the coming months.
In October, the Board of Health voted 3-0 to ban the sales of tobacco and vaping products to anyone under 21. The board's vote exempted the town from the state law that also raised the age to 21, but it grandfathered smokers between the ages of 18 and 20 on Jan. 1, the date the law took effect.
Ouellette set his sights on nicotine purveyors after he accepted the position of health agent in May 2018.
"I noticed when I went through the stores and gas stations near the education complex that there were all kinds of nicotine and vaping products," he said. "They came in all kinds of flavors, including bubblegum and fruit flavors, that were geared for students. I saw young kids buying this stuff."
The Daoulas Education Complex on Lakeview Avenue contains the high school, the Richardson Middle School as well as the Englesby and Brookside Elementary Schools.
In addition to the ban on sales of nicotine to minors, the Board of Health also voted last fall to amp up the campaign to limit nicotine sales to the town's four adults-only smoke shops beginning March 1.
The vaping issue isn't just about nicotine anymore because vaping devices can be adapted for marijuana consumption.
"Now they've found how easy it is to use these devices for marijuana. It's so easy to do it," Ouellette said.
Dracut High School Principal Richard Manley is looking forward to the change on March 1. "Vaping needs attention through education and regulation. Everything we can do to restrict access is a good thing.
"The students are casual about it, but they do like to find places with more privacy to vape," he added.
Ouellette said students have told him the bathrooms at the high school can be unsettling places because students can be shamed into trying vaping or bullied into keep quiet about the practice.
Whether or not caused by the proximity of nicotine vendors, Dracut schools are reporting higher use than other school systems in the state.
Nationwide, statistics from the Food and Drug Administration reports that vaping use among high-school students in the U.S. jumped from 1.5 percent to 11.7 percent between 2011 and 2017. In Massachusetts, on average, 7.1 percent of tobacco sales are to minors. In Dracut, the percents jumps to 8.8.
Until March 1, the displays of vaping and nicotine products will still be visible in the stores and gas stations near the education complex. However, vendors must remove them by that date.
"Children won't see these products anymore," Ouellette said. "There will be no visuals."
Leading up to the October vote, Ouellette worked with UMass Lowell nursing graduate students Shannon Cole, Katie Fitzgerald, Paulette Renault-Caragianes and Sovanna Sor, who identified vaping among middle-school and high-school students as a public health concern.
Their presentation highlighted changes in vaping in the few years since it debuted as way to quit smoking. From e-cigarettes, vaping devices have morphed into gadgets that look like psychedelic pens, dignified pipes, high-tech flash drives and medically prescribed inhalers. Also, lines of clothing advertise integrated vaping devices -- for example, replacing the sheath at the end of strings on hoodies.
When e-cigarettes hit the market, they were sold as a way to quit smoking. Vaping was supposed to be safe because chemicals and particulates were removed. Recent testing contradicts that contention, however. Chemicals in addition to nicotine are present, whether as additives to make them flavorful or as a result of interaction with the heating coils that produce the vapor. Other elements in vaping liquid include the heavy metals nickel, tin and lead.
Vaping should no longer be seen as harmless, Ouellette said. Pneumonia, for example, is fluid in the lungs, and what people are doing now is inhaling liquids into their lungs. These liquids contain oils and carcinogens.
For teens, "their lungs aren't even fully developed yet," Ouellette said.
He believes, therefore, that the effects of vaping "will hit harder and sooner and cause diseases we don't even know yet."
Recently, Ouellette was approach by five seniors in UMass Lowell's undergraduate nursing program. They were in search of a required senior project. Ouellette jumped at the chance to have a group of students who are close in age to the high-schoolers put together an anti-vaping project.
Geoffrey Rowe, one of the five seniors, says the team is still in the information-gathering phase, but it will give a presentation to a 10th-grade health class at DHS in April. Working with him are Joey Bradstreet, Shelagh Fitzgerald, Eric Wakim and Taylor Polomarenko. They are working with guidance from faculty member Mazen El Ghaziri.
"We're working on an educational approach," Rowe said, citing a lack of knowledge about the consequences of vaping.
The team will highlight the medical effects of vaping, the manipulation of teens by vaping marketers, the cost of the various devices, and potential effects on participating in athletics.
In addition to a presentation, the UMass Lowell nursing students will be producing a short movie. Ouellette also anticipates signs and banners across the campus and at athletic events.
Ouellette hopes the pilot program will become part of a package that Dracut teens can deliver to other teens. He also sees a possibility of making the program available to other high schools in the state.