Thirteen-year-old George Bright folded to peer pressure at Sacred Heart of Jesus School and took his first hit from a JUUL — the trendy alternative to smoking old-fashioned cigarettes.
"My best friend had the willpower to turn down the flash-drive-looking thing they call a JUUL, but I was not as strong and I took a hit. I coughed and my throat hurt for a few minutes," Bright said. "It never crossed my mind that I would get caught."
He was eventually outed along with a few other students, leading to suspension from school. It also prompted the seventh-grader to attend a hearing Tuesday of the Senate Health Committee on a recommendation by the Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition to change Kansas law to set the minimum age for buying tobacco products at 21, up from 18. JUUL devices allow people to consume a nicotine product.
"I feel strongly that vaping is too accessible for minors ... and too easy to hide from adults," he said. "Some will say vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes, but I don't think that is true."
Tara Nolen, president of Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition, said companies were marketing e-cigarette products to youth with candy-like flavors and by making products easily available online or at retail businesses. Nearly one-third of Kansas students in high school reported to have experienced vaping, she said.
"Youth tobacco use of any kind is unsafe," she said. "Data suggests that if someone is not a regular smoker by age 25, it is highly unlikely they will become one."
Twenty-two municipalities and four counties in Kansas have adopted ordinances raising the age limit on cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21.
During the committee hearing, Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, said she made a distinction between smoking tobacco and consuming tobacco with vaping.
"When you used the term tobacco generically -- tobacco by combustion is vastly different than tobacco from vaping or nicotine from vaping," Pilcher-Cook said. "It would be helpful to me if you made that clear in your testimony. So we are making decisions based on facts and not just on emotion."
Shelby Rebeck, a registered nurse and the director of health services at Shawnee Mission School District, said the popularity of JUUL revealed how challenging to counter through public policy and educational initiatives. She referred to JUUL as a teenager's dream: easy to get, relatively inexpensive, simple to hide and able to be used without detection.
A JUUL is a small device resembling a flash drive, which can be recharged by plugging into a computer. It is a vaporizer with a regulated temperature control to consume a "pod" of flavored nicotine. One pod has the equivalent nicotine amount of a pack of cigarettes, she said.
While most electronic-cigarette products produce a great deal of vape "smoke" with a pronounced odor, she said, the JUUL devices create much less vapor and quickly-dissipating scent.
"The flavors of JUUL pods are directly marketed to our youth with mango being the teen favorite," Rebeck said. "While other e-cig products produce a great deal of vape 'smoke' and their odor is pronounced, JUULs produce much less vapor and the scent dissipates quickly."
Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican and physician representing the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians, said raising the age for electronic tobacco products to 21 was a priority of the organization.
"While tobacco use remains an important health threat," Eplee said, "the growing use of e-cigarettes, vapes and JUULs -- especially among youth -- is reaching what many now consider epidemic proportions."
No one offered testimony at the Senate hearing in support of JUULs or the other alternatives to smoking cigarettes.
Sen. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, said peer pressure for students to take a quick hit of tobacco-related products would have long-term consequences.
"It's so strong to be cool," said Suellentrop, chairman of the Senate committee. "We're going to pay a dear price in health care costs as a result of these."