Commentary: Morris Township should prosecute vape vendors, not kids

Types of e-cigarettes. Source: CDC.gov
Types of e-cigarettes. Source: CDC.gov
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By Gail Lalk

If you think teen vaping is no big deal, you should try sitting in my chair. I’m an adolescent therapist with a private practice in Morristown, and I’ve sat across from kids jonesing for a vape way too many times.

Nicotine addiction is notoriously severe and hard to kick. Morris Township is considering an ordinance that would criminalize possession of vaping products by minors; multiple offenses could land a young person in juvenile court.

If this ordinance were to take effect, public school resource officers would be authorized to slap kids at school with violations. We shouldn’t make it easy to start vaping — but that doesn’t mean we should treat kids who do like criminals, even if the initial penalties are fairly mild.

When I first heard of the proposed ordinance, I was glad someone was finally taking action. I’ve been vocal about my concerns regarding vaping, and I have posted several opinion pieces and links to research about its detrimental health effects.

I have personally witnessed the meteoric rise in the number of middle and high school students who vape on a regular basis. We have an epidemic of students who are currently addicted to nicotine.

So it might surprise you to learn that, now that I know more about the proposed Morris Township ordinance, I oppose it.

My primary objection is that 12-year old nicotine users are not criminals. They suffer from an addiction to e-cigarettes (primarily Juuls) that have been marketed and sold to them right here in Morristown.

Middle and high school students from neighboring towns hop on NJ Transit to come here and buy vapes, which any business or individual can sell without a permit.

Availability has spread beyond vape shops; another popular source is gas station convenience stores.

Let’s crack down on any establishment that sells vape products to minors by creating an ordinance, jointly with Morristown (and possibly a state law), which requires a permit to legally sell these products.

Vendors should be required to acknowledge that selling these products to minors is illegal. This will give law enforcement officers the tools they need to go after these businesses.

In addition, schools should address this issue as an addiction problem. They should consider rules that would prevent students from keeping backpacks and purses by their sides in class, much as cell phones are left in a bin before the bell rings.

School bathrooms, where vaping products are bought and sold, should be better monitored. If kids are caught vaping on school grounds, they should be temporarily moved to highly restrictive settings for a week or two.

Such an in-school suspension would leave students unable to access their vaping products during the school day, helping them to break their addiction. Students caught vaping should also be suspended from extracurricular activities.

But before we can make real progress reducing teen vaping, adults must be made to realize that it’s a significant problem.

Vaping is not a safe alternative to cigarette smoking. While vaping may help an existing smoker kick their habit, it’s more common for vaping to addict new users to nicotine.

The harmful effects of vaping include an increased risk for a condition known as popcorn lung as well as adverse effects on oral health.

Until adults in the community accept that vaping is a problem worth tackling, treating children as criminals by giving them violations and court appearances will likely be met with opposition from parents who can afford lawsuits and other forms of resistance. The only children who would likely face real consequences would be those who can’t afford a legal battle.

Instead of passing the proposed Morris Township vaping ordinance, let’s work together as a community to tackle this problem from the top down.

Let’s come down hard on the businesses that sell vape products to kids. Let’s not make criminals out of our children. Let’s help them break their addiction instead.

Gail Lalk of Morris Township is a licensed professional counselor and clinical alcohol and drug counselor, who counsels adolescents and teens at Young Adult Therapy in Morristown.

Editor’s note: The opinions above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication. The Morris Township committee plans a Q & A session on its proposed anti-vaping law at its Feb. 20, 2019, meeting.

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