By Julia Callini
Brendan Looney ’23 laid in bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering why he couldn’t get up. For an entire week, he experienced nausea, fatigue and shortness of breath. He had never been this sick before.
The cause was a vape, a small piece of plastic with a battery and a nicotine extract and it would make him reexamine his entire way of life.
“I knew exactly what the issue was,” Looney said. “I was vaping these manmade and unnatural chemicals which were affecting my immune system.”
The start of Looney’s nicotine dependence dates back to high school. Looney didn’t want to vape, but his friends persuaded him to try it. At first, he vaped once every few hours. At the time of his highest consumption, this number grew to 30 times a day– or twice an hour.
“I would get an itch in the middle of class, and I would just have to go to the bathroom, take my JUUL out, rip it,” Looney said. “It was easy, simple, and felt good.”
The e-cigarette, more commonly known as a vape, was invented in 2003 to wean tobacco smokers off traditional tobacco cigarettes. However, many vapes have a higher concentration of nicotine than a tobacco cigarette.
“High concentration nicotine vape acts as a conduit for a younger generation of folks to switch over to smoking cigarettes,” said Ari Kirshenbaum, professor of psychology and psychopharmacology. “There are concerns that vaping is renormalizing smoking and nicotine use once again,” he said.
Vapes are specifically dangerous to adolescents from ages 12-17. In this period of development, nicotine can cause lasting neurobiological changes, and increase susceptibility to having a substance dependence later in life, Kirshenbaum said.
Looney became nicotine dependent at sixteen years old. He started vaping with a JUUL, a vape popular with young adults because of its small size, fruity taste and discreet smell. The JUUL was created in 2015 and was an instant success.
The Truth Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to nicotine prevention, found that in 2018, JUULs made up 75 percent of all e-cigarette sales. Adolescents from age 15 -17 are 16 times more likely to have tried a JUUL than a user ages 25-34, said the Truth Initiative. A single JUUL pod has 40 milligrams of nicotine, which is the equivalent to 20 tobacco cigarettes, says UnhypedVT, an organization working to prevent vaping in teens.
Nicotine consumption impacts several neurotransmitters, including dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends pleasure messages between neurons, and acetylcholine and serotonin, two chemicals responsible for memory.
Many students claim that nicotine products help them focus and improve academic performance, but Kirshenbaum says otherwise.
“No, [nicotine] is not going to improve your grades,” Kirshenbaum said. “It’s just going to make it more likely that you’re just going to get your work done faster, so that then you can drink and party more.”
According to Kirshenbaum, vape users are more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorders, better known as ADHD, because they are trying to lessen their concentration deficit. Instead of turning to a nicotine product, Kirshenbaum urges people who believe they have a concentration problem to visit a doctor and see if they’re eligible for a stimulant prescription.
Although vapes were originally thought to be safer than tobacco cigarettes, vapes often have a higher concentration of nicotine than their tobacco counterparts, Kirshenbaum said. The highest legal dose of nicotine in a vape is 18 milligrams per milliliter. Compared to a tobacco cigarette, a user could consume more nicotine in a single puff of vape than in a single puff of a cigarette. In fact, the JUUL patent says “nicotine salt formulation provides satisfaction comparable to smoking a traditional cigarette.”
For many nicotine users, stopping their dependency on the substance is the biggest obstacle they’ll face. In fact, 75 percent of smokers who try to quit cannot, said Kirshenbaum.
“On a scale of one to ten, [the difficulty of quitting] was a 15,” Looney said.
Kirshenbaum suggests that users who are serious about quitting should talk to a doctor and receive the help of a medical professional. He also notes that data has pointed to nicotine replacement therapy, like nicotine gum and patches, being a good way to quit.
Like other nicotine dependents, Looney’s road to quitting hasn’t been easy or straightforward. He put down the pen for over a year, but in the throws of college, picked up the pen once more. He decided to leave vaping behind him last year after catching the flu, and experiencing severe symptoms. However, Looney couldn’t give the habit up immediately.
“I still had cravings for [a vape] after I got all healthy,” Looney said. “I was still using, but I kept telling myself, “you were almost dying last week, and you’re out here doing the same thing now.” I know that if I want to be here later, I have to take care of myself now.”
Currently, Looney does whatever he can to stop himself from picking up a vape. He distracts himself by hanging out with friends, playing video games, or doing homework. He recently picked up photography, which allows him to explore campus and appreciate the outdoors. He also enjoys playing with his dogs.
“Animals bring me a satisfaction that vaping can’t,” Looney said.
A critical part of quitting is having a team of people who support the journey to sobriety, which can include doctors, psychotherapists, family, friends, and significant others, said Kirshenbaum. Many users turn to support groups when trying to quit. The Bergeron Wellness Center. However, there currently isn’t a support group at St. Michael’s College for substance abuse of any kind, whether it be nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs.
“If this school offered a support group, I would have gone,” Looney said. “About 60% of my friends here vape, and most of them [are fine], but there’s another few of them that are like, ‘well, I don’t really want to keep doing this, but I have nowhere to go.’” he said.