Gurnee lawmaker: Vaping dangers should be taught in schools

Adam Hergenreder was 16 when he started vaping as a way to fit in with friends at Warren Township High School. His favorite flavors were mint, mango and cucumber, and he would go through the nicotine equivalent of about a pack of cigarettes a day.

About two years later, the Gurnee resident wound up in the hospital struggling to breathe. His doctors told him that his lungs looked like they belonged to a 70-year-old.

Hergenreder's story made national news in 2019 and now it has inspired state Rep. Joyce Mason, a Gurnee Democrat, to introduce a measure to include the health risks of vaping in the public school curriculum.

"It's a small change but I believe it can change the narrative," Mason said, referring to the idea among teens that vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes. "Kids can start out learning that it's not (safer) before they get addicted to it."

Vapes, or e-cigarettes, are electronic devices that heat a liquid to produce an aerosol that usually contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals.

The Centers for Disease Control says while e-cigarettes expose users to fewer harmful chemicals than burned cigarettes, they still include ultrafine particles and heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead.

The use of any tobacco product is unsafe, and the long-term health effects of vaping are not yet known, according to the CDC.

Despite the risks, vaping among youths is on the rise. According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, use of e-cigarettes increased 78% among high school students and nearly 50% among middle school students during the 2017-2018 school year. In 2018, around when Hergenreder started, more than 3.6 million youth in the United States were e-cigarette users.

Mason's proposal to teach the dangers of vaping was referred to the House rules committee last month. The plan must be approved by the committee before being sent to the House for a vote. She said she hasn't received much feedback yet from educators about her plan.

The former Woodland Elementary District 50 school board member said she's hesitant to create unfunded mandates on teachers, but she hopes they will be able to incorporate the health risks of vaping when they discuss the dangers of tobacco use. Learning the medical and legal ramifications of tobacco use is one of the topics mandated to be taught to sixththrough 12th-grade public school students.

Hergenreder, now 19, said he might never have vaped had he learned about the dangers.

"Had that been taught to me when I was younger it would have definitely changed how my future looks now," Hergenreder said.

His family first sought medical treatment for him when he began having uncontrollable shivers and vomiting. On a CT scan, doctors noticed there appeared to be something wrong with his lungs. Soon after, Hergenreder was diagnosed with lung damage caused by vaping.

His mother, Polly Hergenreder, said she recently watched a video she took of him from Aug. 31, 2019, when he was at his worst.

"Hearing how hard it was for him to breathe and how he was struggling to catch a breath, I couldn't catch my breath. It kind of brought it all back," she said. "It's every mother's nightmare."

In 2019, the Hergenreder family filed a lawsuit against Juul Labs for advertising e-cigarettes to children. David Neiman, an attorney at Romanucci & Blandin, said the suit is pending.

Adam Hergenreder's condition is much improved since his seven days at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, but doctors have told him his lungs will never be at 100%.

Even after completing physical rehabilitation and a round of medication, he is always conscious of putting too much stress on his lungs. He said last week he went out to shoot some hoops with friends but had to stop to catch his breath.

Polly Hergenreder said she is thrilled that Mason's proposal would make something positive out of her son's story.

"It's good that kids are going to be educated about it and hopefully will know the dangers of it and will not do unfortunately what Adam did," she said.

Joyce Mason
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