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Benefield: Maria Carrillo High School student at forefront of fight to ban vaping products

Find out more about tobacco and vaping prevention actions in Sonoma County

To find out more about Tobacco-Free Sonoma County, go here: facebook.com/TobaccoFreeSonomaCounty

To learn more about Sonoma County’s tobacco prevention program, go here: sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Public-Health/Healthy-Communities/Tobacco-Prevention

To see Ramakrishnan’s work with Teens for Tobacco Education, go here: teensfortobaccoeducation.org

To support Tobacco-Free Sonoma County’s push for stronger regulations of vaping products in Petaluma, go here: form.jotform.com/212907580193155

Riya Ramakrishnan first saw a peer vaping in seventh grade. Then she saw another person doing it, then another friend. All of a sudden, the sticky sweet smell of exhaled e-cigarette toxins felt like it was everywhere.

“Vaping is huge,” said Ramakrishnan, a junior at Maria Carrillo High School.

Now, after more than a year of distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sonoma County students are back on campus and back to in-person learning, and Ramakrishnan says the problem with vaping is again front and center in her day-to-day life.

And it feels worse than ever.

“It’s a monstrosity of a problem among students … this year is exponentially more than it was my freshman year,” she said.

More than 25% of Sonoma County 11th-graders said they had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, according to a County of Sonoma Department of Health Services and Impact Sonoma survey conducted in 2018-19.

In that same survey, 70% of high schools and 50% of middle schools reported the problem was getting worse.

Ramakrishnan, who hopes to study medicine and become a pediatrician, is building a program she hopes to bring to middle school and elementary-aged students. The message isn’t simply, “Don’t do this.”

Instead, she wants to illustrate the hows and the whys.

“That way, it’s not, ‘Smoking is bad,’ which is what I got,” she said. “Tell me more.”

The key, she said, is having the message delivered by peers.

Within a group she founded, Teens for Tobacco Education, she wants to build a cadre of high school students who would be trained to deliver anti-tobacco and anti-vaping messages in middle school and elementary school classrooms.

It would be real world students giving real world examples of how they handled different situations, she said. All backed by science and facts.

In addition to her work with Teens for Tobacco Education, she is on just about every anti-tobacco, anti-vaping action committee you can imagine. She is working with two universities — the University of Rochester and the University of California at San Francisco — conducting research into teens and tobacco and vaping habits.

“Riya connected with me about a year ago when she was looking for research mentors who are studying vaping. We have since worked together on several projects,” Valerie Gribben, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of California San Francisco and American Academy of Pediatrics E-Cigarette Chapter Champion, said in an email.

“Currently she is helping me with a scientific manuscript describing ways to try to help teens who are addicted to vaping cut back their usage,” Gribben said.

Greg Damron, vice chair of Tobacco Free Sonoma County, called Ramakrishnan’s work key to the committee’s push to end what he calls an epidemic among young people.

The group has successfully pushed for tougher regulations in Windsor and Sebastopol and expects to present their case at the Petaluma City Council next week, Damron said.

In addition to her full academic load with four Advanced Placement classes, Ramakrishnan said she also estimates she spends about 20 hours a week working with the likes of Impact Sonoma, California Youth Advocacy and Students Against Nicotine, as well as with researchers at UCSF and University of Rochester on e-cigarette studies.

For her work, she was given the North Bay Merit Award at a ceremony on Sunday.

“Riya has a rare dedication and incredible drive for trying to help end the youth vaping epidemic. She has already made many positive impacts in her community and beyond, and she is still in high school,” Gribben said.

Ramakrishnan is nothing if not diligent. This is someone who, if she doesn’t know the precise answer to my question, responds with, “That is something I have to fact check.”

What she doesn’t have to fact check or research or analyze is what she sees around her every day among her peers.

Whether it’s the residual strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, the stresses of returning to school or those associated with returning to social situations, Ramakrishnan says she is seeing vaping everywhere.

Peers tell her they started as a way to relieve stress or to take the edge off and now they are hooked.

There is as much nicotine in one vape pod as in an entire carton of cigarettes, Gribben said. And for teens, that is disastrous. Nicotine can re-wire brain cells to affect teens’ moods, memory and learning, she said.

Another classmate, someone Ramakrishnan considers a friend, told her she wants to quit but doesn’t know how without getting herself in trouble.

“She said how she really wanted to stop and she didn’t how to get help without her mom or dad knowing,” she said.

Ramakrishnan hopes to help people break free of the addiction, but foremost she wants tobacco and e-cigarette products — the ones with flavors like bubble gum and cotton candy — that seem keenly targeted toward kids, off the market.

Once touted as a way to ease tobacco cigarette smokers off their habit, Ramakrishnan feels like e-cigarettes were just a ruse to simply find a new, lucrative market of smokers.

“Their purpose wasn’t just to target smokers, it was, in my opinion to target youth because of their flavoring and their ads,” she said. “It was not meant for 40-year-olds, it was meant for young people.

“You have hooked a whole new generation of e-cigarette users,” she said.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Find out more about tobacco and vaping prevention actions in Sonoma County

To find out more about Tobacco-Free Sonoma County, go here: facebook.com/TobaccoFreeSonomaCounty

To learn more about Sonoma County’s tobacco prevention program, go here: sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Public-Health/Healthy-Communities/Tobacco-Prevention

To see Ramakrishnan’s work with Teens for Tobacco Education, go here: teensfortobaccoeducation.org

To support Tobacco-Free Sonoma County’s push for stronger regulations of vaping products in Petaluma, go here: form.jotform.com/212907580193155

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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