We are the founders of the Breathe In Change initiative—high school students taking a stand against the vaping epidemic plaguing our classmates and friends. During the last five years, e-cigarettes and vaping devices have taken control of our generation’s bodies—for some students, even as young as 10. Nicotine, a highly addictive chemical, has been snaking its way through our peers’ lungs and bloodstreams and into their brains. In the fall of 2019, Adam Fine, our principal at East Hampton High School in East Hampton, NY, selected us to work together and fight back against the vaping epidemic. We quickly formed an alliance with political analyst Peter Emerson of MSNBC, who has helped publicize our organization.
Our group formed an official title after we visited a local middle level school and spoke to those students about our experience with vaping in high school. The conversations with them were so inspiring that we knew we had to do everything we could to save their lives. On the bus ride back to school, we chose our name—Breathe In Change—and committed to making as large an impact as possible. Our goal is to stop the assault on the lungs and brains of our friends, especially younger students at the middle level.
In our high school of more than 1,000 students, approximately 65 percent are using or are addicted to vaping and unable to stop. However, this is also a growing epidemic in middle level schools. As scary as it may seem, the Harvard School of Public Health recently discovered a highly carcinogenic chemical in the nicotine found in Juul devices (a popular e-cigarette brand). This is an epidemic we face every day in our classrooms, in our hallways, on our athletic fields, on our buses, and everywhere. We have grown so concerned that we have provided our eyewitness accounts to members of Congress, the media, and local and state officials. Unfortunately, few people fully understand what’s going on because they haven’t seen it firsthand the way we have.
We have several goals. First and foremost, we wish to provide facts to local, state, and federal officials who have great intentions but often do not have the information to make decisions to help.
We believe it’s necessary to reach out to our surrounding schools and those around the country to urge them to do several things:
- Have the information to make the right decisions, spread the word, and make sure younger children do not get involved with this epidemic.
- Treat this epidemic, this addiction, this disease, as a public health issue—not a legal, moral, or willpower issue.
- Move away from disciplinary practices such as expelling and suspending students in favor of treating their addiction within the school and with outside therapy.
- Seek reimbursement from vaping companies, especially Juul, for the costs that your school and schools across the country are incurring. Many of our favorite school activities have seen their budgets cut and that money could be used to cope with this epidemic.
- Ensure that students vote for candidates in the coming election who have not accepted money from the vaping industry—Juul in particular, due to its carcinogenic link. Peter Emerson has provided us with sources claiming that several candidates have received substantial funds from Juul.
We have a presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All our posts are bilingual because this epidemic knows no cultural, ethnic, social, or economic boundaries. Our group member Valeria Guevara makes sure to have all posts and presentations translated into Spanish because of the highly affected Latinx population. We are also working to have a distinguished board of advisers; we already have commitments from several scientists, doctors, and other knowledgeable professionals. We hope to make these people available to other schools across the nation to help them start their own chapter of the Breathe In Change initiative.
We thought we were going to be the first generation free of tobacco’s insidious cancer-causing products. Unfortunately, little did we know that vaping companies would use social media to spread lies and market their dangerous product to impressionable students. It is evident to us that we have a long road ahead, and it is going to take all of our strength to fight this battle. We feel the solution to the problem starts with us—high school students. By leading our peers to clear, accurate information, we can make more of them associate the stigma of cigarettes with vaping devices. From here, word of mouth will carry our message through social media platforms and daily conversations. With the help of community members, school faculty, and the student body, Breathe In Change will bring much-needed attention to the challenges faced by our nation’s schools and prevent a health crisis nationwide.
Valeria Guevara, Samantha Prince, Julianna Jurkiewicz, Erin Kennedy, Lucia Ibrahim, and Olivia Davis are students at East Hampton High School in East Hampton, NY.