CLARKS SUMMIT, Pa. -- E-cigarettes were intended to be a method for smokers to quit. But in recent years, kids have started using the devices without knowing the dangers that electronic cigarettes can pose to their health. Sometimes they start using them without their parents knowing.
"Kids aren't smoking cigarettes anymore. They are going right to e-pens, Juuls, and trying to get their tobacco from that," said Kristin Rude, a physical education teacher at Abington Heights School District.
Some e-cigarettes are so small, you probably wouldn't even recognize them.
"It would be over-passed if you walked past their room and you saw one laying on their desk in their room," added Andrew Snyder, principal at Abington Heights High School.
So what exactly are these vapes, and why are they so dangerous for young people?
Dr. Jaya Sugunaraj of Geisinger specializes in pulmonary medicine and says it's what we don't know about these devices that has the medical community concerned.
"It's basically a battery-operated device which heats up the liquid to aerosolized form or mist form, which the user inhales," Dr. Sugunaraj explained. "We don't want to wait until 30 years to find out that these are injurious to health. I'm a lung doctor. I see patients with COPD and lung cancer. Most of the patients come and tell me, 'I wish someone told me 30 years back that this is not good for me.'"
A report from the surgeon general in 2018 says that 3.6 million young people use e-cigarettes. That's one in five high school students, and one in 20 middle schoolers who are using vapes.
"The dangers of smoking cigarettes and tobacco use is clear. It's out there, and our kids are afraid. Vapes don't hurt their lungs. Vapes don't hurt their chest. They're not coughing. It's easy to use," explained Snyder.
Administrators in the Abington Heights School District saw a surge of students using e-cigarettes in their schools in recent years, but before they could punish students for using them, they had to catch them in the act.
"The smell is less detectable. The odor doesn't linger on the person, so it's harder to catch someone who is using a vape," said Snyder.
That led some students to get involved with the new TRU, or Tobacco Resistance Unit, club that launched this year. It's all about educating their peers on the dangers of smoking and vaping.
"It can affect your heart. It can affect your lungs. It can affect your athletic performance if you do sports. It can affect pretty much every aspect of your life," said Gavin Ross, a freshman member of the club.
So how exactly are these students buying these e-cigarettes? Charles MacAvoy is the co-owner of Vape Dragons in Wilkes-Barre, and he says kids aren't buying them in his store.
"At the vape shop, we are the gatekeepers. We are the people that card everybody so that only adults can use this product, just like the liquor stores in Pennsylvania," said MacAvoy.
So if they aren't buying them in stores, how are kids getting their hands on vapes?
"Everybody knows kids are more tech savvy. They can grab their phones, and in a couple of seconds, go onto an online store, and they can just buy the e-juice online. There's 'Are you 18? Check the box,' and I'm sure the computer is not looking at your ID," explained MacAvoy.
But could it really be that easy to buy a vape without proving your age? I decided to put it to the test.
I went on Amazon.com and was able to buy a vape without proving my age. All I needed was an Amazon account, a valid form of payment, and I was able to add it to my cart and make the purchase.
"They're coming through the mail. They're even selling them to their peers, so it's a real problem," said Colleen Leonard, middle school principal at Abington Heights. She said she has been working to educate both parents and students on the dangers these e-cigarettes could pose to them.
"You don't think of your fifth or sixth grader to be starting there, but it does."
While schools are battling to keep these devices out of the classroom, professionals say the first line of defense is the parents.
"We really have to help our kids know that this is just as bad if not worse than smoking cigarettes," said Snyder.
"If your kid is in middle school, that might be the right age to start talking about these devices to them," added Dr. Sugunaraj.
In Pennsylvania, the law requires that you be at least 18 years old and show a photo ID in order to buy e-cigarettes or any tobacco product.
Members of the TRU Club at Abington Heights plan to go to Harrisburg next week and lobby state lawmakers to raise the smoking age for tobacco and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21.