From ‘nic-sicking’ to social media pressure — SF kids talk vaping dangers

Supervisor Shamann Walton seeks vape cartridge ban to protect San Francisco children from nicotine.

On Guard column header Joe

The effort to ban nicotine vaping cartridges in San Francisco has gained some important backers: Kids.

Even as San Francisco’s adults (read: Supervisor Shamann Walton and allies) do the work of passing a vape cartridge ban, aiming to protect teens and kids from the harmful, addictive effects of nicotine products, youth in San Francisco’s public schools are fighting back, too.

A group of these invigorated whipper-snappers, ages 11 to 12, allowed me to speak with them at Marina Middle School this week.

These Youth Outreach Workers, as the kids are called, help educate their peers through the Marina Beacon Center, a newly expanded program run by Health and Wellness Youth Outreach Coordinator Kylie Goo.

That program existed in different forms previously but has expanded to middle schools across the San Francisco Unified School District. And it’s operating at Marina Middle School with its Youth Outreach Worker program for the first time this year.

Though it focuses on wellness broadly, the program has a particular focus on tobacco prevention.

“They don’t realize the damage they can do to themselves” by vaping, said Mamen Gashaw, 12, a member of the program.

Goo’s students are in favor of Walton’s vape ban, they told me — City government “should stop JUUL shipments Mission Impossible-style” suggested Mattheson Dobay, 12 — and even crafted their own film warning of vaping’s pervasiveness for a March environmental film festival hosted by the nonprofit Breathe California, called the “Clear the Air Film Fest.”

Now, full disclosure, my wonderful girlfriend Anna helped program that film festival, which is how I met Dobay and Goo. But the short film would’ve caught my attention no matter where I saw it. And, in a plus for me, I also attended Marina Middle School, home of the Penguins.

I do love a nice stroll down memory lane.

Marina Middle is where I first got a taste of journalism via our school newspaper, the Penguin Press (Thanks, Mr. Fleming). Now, these present-day Marina Middle kids kindly agreed to educate me on the vaping temptations they see every day. That’s not a challenge unique to their school, or even San Francisco — vaping nicotine in the United States has “surged” nationally, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

The jump in vape usage, a type of electronic cigarette, from 2017 to 2018 was the “largest ever recorded” in the past 43 years for any substance used by youth, the journal reported. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration called it an “epidemic.”

And while SFUSD data shows vape use declining between 2015 and 2017 from 8 percent to 2 percent, , the district doesn’t yet have data on 2018 — importantly, that’s when the national surge was recorded.

For now, however, the kids told me they’ve definitely seen their peers vaping.

“There’s this girl I knew in elementary school” who is now in the eighth grade, Aya Afenzal, 12, told me. Now an eighth grader, “she still vapes,” Afenzal said.

Dobay told me that even the week before he joined the Marina Beacon Center, he saw his peers from school vaping near the Moscone Rec Center, just a stone’s throw from the toddlers gathered at Moscone Park.

Angela Ledesma, 11, has also seen Marina students smoking near Moscone Park. “There are small kids!” she exclaimed, disappointed.

Kids vape in a variety of ways: Some inhale as much as possible, as fast as possible, to achieve head highs. Some call that one “nic-sicking.” Other kids just enjoy blowing Os or other shapes, as folks have done since time immemorial. Dobay described a vape maneuver as a “jellyfish trick.” I didn’t quite get that one.

Instagram, Youtube and Snapchat are easy entry points for the kids to learn the ins-and-outs of vaping, the youth outreach coordinators told me. Dobay pulled up a video of one Instagram “influencer” — people paid by corporations to look cool and model products — blowing vape smoke out of his mouth, surrounded by neon lightning video effects to emphasize the billowing smoke’s movement around his face.

Goo, the wellness coordinator, told me “They get it from social media first.”

Erik Martinez, a health coordinator with SFUSD, told me most schools districts were “caught off guard by vaping.”

But middle school isn’t where the usage its highest. Instead, it’s where vaping first takes hold in kids’ minds. By high school, vape usage rates leap and bound.

A whopping 25 percent of SFUSD high schoolers report having used vapes, according to 2017 survey data, though that number decreased from 32 percent in 2015. Martinez credits that reduction in their outreach efforts.

Now, this is where I need to sneak in the vape industry’s defenses. JUUL, the most popular of these companies, writes on its website that it has pledged $30 million over the next three years for “independent research” and youth education. The company said it has instituted “unique ID match” technology to make sure minors are not able to purchase products online, and market their products “responsibly” to adults.

Of course, lots of great investigative journalism nationally has called that last promise, in particular, a bunch of horse hockey. VOX wrote earlier this year “The vape company Juul said it doesn’t target teens. Its early ads tell a different story.”

And the Marina Middle School kids told me much the same — in their own research, they’ve been able to click through to vaping websites, and social media “influencers” suavely market the products to youth all the time. And, no surprise here, Goo told me its often siblings and older relatives who obtain vape products for teens and kids.

For those reasons and many more, the Marina Middle School students told me “No!” when I asked if vape companies had done enough to protect kids.

Gashaw, 12, said she’s looking out for those she loves.

“I just want younger kids, especially my brother, to be really careful about the world and what it holds,” she said.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

A previous version of this story used the title “Youth Outreach Coordinator” for the children workers, but the correct title is “Youth Outreach Worker.”

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