WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. (CBS4)– Health officials in one Colorado school district are touting a former student as the “poster child” of overcoming addiction to e-cigarettes. Jim Lynch, now a senior at Brighton High School, quit vaping while attending Wheat Ridge High School in 2018.
Now, almost a year after making the difficult decision, Lynch remains nicotine-free and eager to share his story to inspire other classmates.
Studies show nearly half of Colorado teens have tried using e-cigarettes. Many go on to do it regularly, even becoming addicted to the highly concentrated nicotine without even realizing it.
In 2018, Jim Lynch knew he was addicted to nicotine, but had no plans to quit until an embarrassing moment in choir class.
“I just happened to pick the wrong moment, when Mr. Plakorus came walking out of the practice room, to let out a cloud and he saw and that’s kind of how it changed,” Lynch said.
At the time, the 17-year-old was vaping regularly. He started with cigarettes in middle school, then switched to e-cigarettes while a student at Wheat Ridge High School.
At first, the vaping devices were large and hard to hide, but as the years went on, new, much smaller devices hit the market. Obtaining an e-cigarette was as easy as asking an upperclassman to buy one for you, Lynch described to CBS4.
“It was a lot easier to use it though because as the vaping devices got smaller and smaller and smaller, I could be more discrete about it,” he said.
Lynch’s preference was the popular and thumb drive-sized Juul, though he used other devices too. On an average day, Lynch vaped two to three times an hour – even while in class.
“I used to keep them in my sleeve and I would yawn and it’s right there. So it’s pretty simple to keep it hidden,” Lynch said.
Lynch estimates he got away with it hundreds of times before he got caught by his favorite teacher in choir class.
“The biggest thing that really made me change was how disappointed my dad was over the phone when we talked about it,” Lynch said. “It just crushed me because he’s always been a huge role model for me.”
For Lynch, that shame fueled a life-changing decision. Heading into winter break, he worked with his school nurse at the time, Rhonda Valdez, to quit.
The school nurse referred him to a number of resources utilized by the Jefferson County Schools Student Engagement Office.
Lynch found the most success with two tactics in particular; one being The Stanford University Tobacco Prevention Toolkit, an online resource created by educators and researchers aimed at preventing middle and high school students’ use of tobacco and nicotine products.
Valdez also provided Lynch with mints and toothpicks to help fight some of the psychological symptoms of nicotine addiction.
“He’d come back to me weekly for those mints and the toothpicks, and I was like, ‘Yes!’ Whatever you need, let’s provide this for you,” Valdez said.
Still, quitting was not easy for Lynch, after years of nicotine use. He described to CBS4 how hard the first three days were.
“I felt pretty nauseous all three days,” Lynch said. “I lost my appetite and I had a really bad headache for two of the three days.”
While Lynch was able to successfully quit vaping, Valdez, who focuses on drug, tobacco, and nicotine intervention, said his success in quitting is an outlier.
“When students who are caught with a vape product and they’re given some educational information, hopefully about 25% of them will go on to say, ‘No I don’t want to do this,’” Valdez said. “I would say 50% are still saying, ‘Nope I still want to do this.’”
According to a 2017 survey of teen tobacco use by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, nearly 27% of Colorado kids admit to using e-cigarettes.
When broken down by grade level, the survey estimates e-cigarette use increases with age. According to the survey, 18% of high school freshman admit to using e-cigarettes, while 34% of high school seniors do.
Lynch, who still knows many classmates who vape, warns parents that those estimates may not be high enough.
“Adults don’t walk through the hallways. Adults don’t hang out in the bathrooms at schools. Adults don’t see what goes on in locker rooms. Adults don’t see any of that,” Lynch said. “They see the percentage of kids that answer that in a census or survey of some kind.”
Since quitting, Lynch has testified about his experience before a State Senate committee. He continues to urge friends to follow his lead in quitting as well.
“I don’t attack them for using it, but I ask them why they use it,” Lynch said, “Then, when they have to try to come up with a reason, and the only reason is, ‘Because I like it,’ then it’s like, ‘Well do you like it or are you addicted to it?’”
Lynch is also quick to point out the health benefits of quitting, which he says are most obvious in choir class.
“I’m able to do things that I wasn’t able to do before,” Lynch said. “My range in singing has gotten bigger since I quit.”
For a future Navy Midshipmen with dreams of singing on Broadway on day, those are all valuable benefits.
While many school districts offer their own resources and programs, there are other options for parents and students around the state.
The Colorado QuitLine, 1-800-QUIT-NOW, offers free FDA-approved treatments. In July, National Jewish Health launched its own, teen-specific vaping and tobacco cessation program, called “My Life, My Quit.”