Spreading the gospel about vape dangers, one school at a time

He’s a man with a mission, a crusader warning students and their parents about the perils posed by e-cigarettes amid what federal authorities say is an epidemic of vaping by kids, some as young as 10 years old.

Timothy Shoemaker, a police officer, travels to schools across the country targeting kids in grades 5 through 12, with the goal of educating them about everything from propaganda surrounding e-cigarettes to how vaping affects one’s brain and body. His stop Tuesday was in Montville — first an address to students at the high school and then, in the evening, a follow-up session with parents.

His approach is to show, not tell, with a presentation of real-life — and in some cases, shocking — examples of how the peers of those in his audience have come to harm.

“If you gradually lead them down the path, then they can understand through the context of mass media, marketing in general,” he said. “’Now I see how Big Tobacco and Nicotine have been using it.’ They are ready for that message. Whereas, if you say, ‘they’re predators, they exploit people,’ you’re just saying words.”

Students at the school said the graphic videos and photos featured in Shoemaker’s presentation really hit home. Sophomore Jake Camasta said he was struck by the images of young people in the hospital on respirators.

Others talked about how their peers view e-cigarettes as different from regular smoking.

“There has been such a big stigma created around cigarettes but that stigma isn’t present for vaping yet for high schoolers, so I think this is bringing awareness,” said Elena McGovern, a 17-year-old senior.

“I think I was most shocked by how similar cigarettes are to vaping,” said sophomore Julia Kehr. “Everyone thinks cigarettes are so gross and they would never do it, and really vaping is the exact same thing.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control says that, as of early this month, nearly 2,800 people — most of them young — have been afflicted with what authorities have termed EVALI — for “e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury”. The epidemic, which peaked in September and has been abating since, has left 64 dead, including one suspected case in New Jersey.

In most instances, but not all, the vaped product contained THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Authorities have been sharply critical of the vaping industry, saying that they market their products, which contain highly addictive nicotine, to teenagers with candy-themed and other flavorings favored by the young.

In January, New Jersey became the first state to permanently ban flavored vape products, including menthol — an aggressive approach designed to combat the rise in minors who vape.

Shoemaker says he often sees evidence of that explosion.

“I go to schools where the district has enacted policies where they [students] can’t wear long sleeves anymore because the vaping is so bad,” he said. “I go to schools where there are overdose patrols for the bathrooms.”

Still, he said his goal is not to preach, but to present information that allows youngsters to make smart choices.

“My point is not that anyone who is selling these things, or even offering them, are evil or monsters,” he said. “My point is our kids need to know better and they need to make better decisions on their own.”

On Tuesday, his audience seemed to be getting the message.

“The fact that he said, ‘It’s OK that you don’t know,’” said sophomore Bella Mangano. “It’s kind of reassuring and it still sets the point that it’s bad and you should stop.”

According to his website, Shoemaker charges between $1,500 and $2,500 for his presentations. He’s was once named the national officer of the year for DARE, a law enforcement-based program designed to steer kids away from drugs and violence.