In Kansas City, parents are grappling with an epidemic of teenage vaping– here’s how to help your child

Teen Vaping Epidemic
Illustrations by John Malta

In September, Carol Thomas found dozens of little plastic tubes tucked into her 17-year-old son’s underwear drawer.

She had no idea what they were — but she instinctively knew to toss them in the trash. Turns out, they were empty cartridges for a Juul vape pen.

“When I looked up vaping on the internet, I was horrified,” says Thomas, who we are identifying under a pseudonym since her son is underage. “My son knows smoking is dangerous, but vaping smells and tastes like candy even though one ‘juice’ tank has as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.”

It’s a battle that Thomas hasn’t been able to win with her son, a junior in the Blue Valley School District. Although she tries to thwart his use, she has not been able to convince him to quit.

“I search his room, and I throw away anything I find,” Thomas says. “But I feel like a failure as a parent.”

The situation Thomas finds herself in is increasingly common in the Kansas City area and in the country. In April, Blue Valley schools held a community meeting titled “Vaping in the Valley: Fad or Epidemic?” The school district also implemented harsh new punishments for vaping, starting with a five-day out-of-school suspension for possession or use on school grounds or at school activities.

The district had to step up its efforts, says David Stubblefield, Blue Valley’s executive director of school administration.

“Some students will actually vape in class,” he says. “They aren’t being caught because they are ‘zeroing,’ or swallowing the vapor completely.”

Blue Valley is not unique in facing this problem. After nearly stamping out teen smoking, the advent of vaping devices like the Juul, which looks like a USB flash drive and delivers a potent hit of nicotine, has swept through teen culture. In December, the Surgeon General declared that teen vaping is an epidemic in the United States. This followed a Food and Drug Administration study that found 3.6 million middle and high school students now consider themselves to be e-cigarette users, a number that doubled in the last year alone.

What do you do if a child or grandchild gets caught up in this epidemic? We asked several experts for advice.

Blue Valley North school psychologist Mark Kenney says vaping is tough because a child might already be addicted before a parent discovers the habit.

Teen Vaping Epidemic“You treat it as a behavior, but you also have to treat it as an addiction,” he says. “Try to have an honest conversation. Ask your child if the vaping is to the point that it’s impossible to stop. As a responsible parent, you must give a consistent, strong message that you do not condone this.”

Kenney suggests giving kids reasonable consequences, such as removing car privileges.

“But don’t overreact,” he says. “You risk creating more distance if you push too hard. Screaming and yelling will only cause resentment and dishonesty.”

Dr. Debra Galvin, a child and family therapist, educator and researcher based in Leawood, points out that nicotine causes deficits in learning, memory, concentration, self-control and attention. She counsels parents to sit down with their children and look at  accurate information available on the internet from a reliable source such as WebMD.

“Take a stand,” Galvin says. “Children need to know the consequences of vaping on their health and on their education.”

Galvin reminds parents that they have the right to look in the child’s room, car or backpack for vaping paraphernalia. She quotes one parent’s advice: “You inspect what you expect.”

Dr. Alvin Singh, a Children’s Mercy Hospital pulmonologist, says although many adolescents think they are only inhaling flavored water vapor in JUUL tanks, “they are actually inhaling volatile chemicals such as polypropylene glycol and benzoic acid at 300-400 degrees Fahrenheit.”

These chemicals can have devastating effects on the lungs and heart. Singh suggests that parents and their teens watch a video created by JUULERS AGAINST JUUL on YouTube. Made by 17-year-old Jack Waxman, the video gives an honest assessment of the crisis.

For parents like Thomas, whose son is already a heavy nicotine user, it’s an uphill battle. Although Kansas law changed so that buyers must be at least 21 years old, kids have little problem finding vape pens and juice or getting someone of age to buy. Thomas says her son admits that in the last 18 months, he’s spent about $6,000 on vaping.

“I try to talk to my son, but I just get the eye-roll,” Thomas sighs. “He says, ‘Oh, Mom, everyone is doing it. It’s not a big deal.’”


The Facts

▶︎3.6 Million middle and high school students say they now use e-cigarettes

▶︎That figure has doubled in the last year

▶︎2022 is the year that the FDA will next consider whether to ban flavored vape juice

▶︎$12.8 billion is the price that Altria, the company that owns Marlboro cigarettes, paid for a 35% stake in JUUL last December after years of declining sales

▶︎21 is the new age to buy nicotine products in Kansas.  The age is still 18 in Missouri.

Social Media

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe to our newsletters

Kansas City magazine keeps readers updated on the latest news in twice-weekly newsletter. 

On Tuesdays, Dish brings you food news and our critic picks. 

On Thursdays, The Loop offers exclusive news reports and our curated events picks.