It started innocently enough.
Newly minted high school freshman Luka Kinard had arrived at his first Friday night football game ready to make friends and belong when he first considered vaping.
At 14 years old, Luka had already experimented with chewing tobacco, smoked cigars and snuck combustible cigarettes, but the electronic cigarettes his schoolmates were inconspicuously taking drags from seemed a more approachable and enjoyable vice.
“I just saw it as a way to fit in,” Luka told InsideEdition.com. “I wanted to get to the front row seats with the seniors for the football game. So for me, it was just a ticket to the front row.”
According to Luka, it would also prove to be a ticket to rehab.
A medical scare and 39 days spent in an inpatient rehabilitation facility more than 2,000 miles away from his home in High Point, North Carolina, would help bring Luka back to desperately worried family, but others in similar circumstances have not been as lucky.
Authorities say nearly 500 individuals in about three dozen states have been recently hospitalized with vaping-related respiratory illnesses, which are also possibly linked to six deaths.
And Luka has made it his mission to inform as many people as possible about the issues he said he’s faced as a result of vaping, so that others won’t have to learn the hard way as well.
“I recognized that was an opportunity and I didn’t want to miss it,” he said.
Luka became a fast fan of vaping.
“It was so much more convenient (than other nicotine-based products),” Luka, now 16, said. “If I walked into a classroom, if I walked into my own house, I wasn’t smelling like a combustible cigarette, which was really noticeable. So it was easier for me to get away with it.”
But his taking up vaping did not go unnoticed by his parents, who were not happy to see their son smoking, but less stressed since he had moved on from traditional cigarettes.
“I knew he was starting vaping because we already knew about the cigarettes and we did not support that,” Luka’s mother, Kelly Kinard, told InsideEdition.com. “And we had many arguments because of it. So when he said he wanted to try vaping to wean himself off cigarettes, we didn’t argue too much … I looked it up on the internet and everything I found said that it's a healthier alternative to combustible cigarettes.”
What began as a supposed healthier way for Luka to fit in quickly became a crutch he couldn’t go without. Luka said he typically vaped using a Juul device, for which users buy flavored liquid cartridges, or pods.
“At first it started as a pod a day, but then progressively it got to more and more,” Luka said. “At the worst, it was four pods a day, which is a pack.”
The cartridges are not cheap, and as a young teen, Luka had little in the way of means to provide for his habit.
“At the height of my addiction, [I was spending] $150 a week,” he said. “I was selling my clothes and shoes … anything and everything in my room that I thought I could sell, I could get money for, I was selling it. So whether it be an action figure, whether it be an old collectible card or whether it'd be clothes I just got for Christmas, I was selling.”
But Luka’s cash flow issues were the least of his parents’ concerns.
“His behavior changed, and it changed rapidly and drastically,” Kelly said. “He went from being a nice, kind, outgoing, fun loving kid to serious outbursts and explosions. I'm not just talking about rage, I'm talking about kicking open doors and destroying our furniture and throwing dishes around the house.”
Once an engaged and active kid, Luka became laser-focused on one thing: vaping.
“So before vaping, I used to play sports, I was in Boy Scouts and I was a straight-A student,” Luka said. “Very quickly in high school, that all stopped.”
He stopped attending Boy Scout meetings, soccer and basketball became abstract pastimes and his grades plummeted.
“I thought he was losing his mind,” Kelly said.
At first unsure of what was behind her son’s dramatic personality shift, Kelly sought professional help.
“I thought it was maybe some kind of adolescent onset psychiatric illness, so we instantly sent him to counselor to see if we could get behind what was causing the anger,” she said. “During that time, maybe after he'd started after a month maybe, I started doing research and I realized that it was related to nicotine.”
Kelly’s theories on the reasoning behind Luka’s issues were met with resistance by both Luka himself and the authorities tasked with helping his behavior improve.
“There was no speaking to him about it. It was all arguing, and if we tried to have a conversation with him, he exploded. So there was no having a conversation,” Kelly said. “And I was telling the therapist that that's what it was and the therapist was telling me to back off. She was telling me that he needed the Juul to deal with his anxiety. And I was telling her, but he didn't have anxiety before he started Juuling.
“So we went round and round, a lot of arguing ... and we went through the summer and the following September is when he had the grand mal seizure.”
It was about a year after he started vaping that, at 15, Luka in September 2018 suffered a medical scare that left him unconscious for six minutes.
“I was in a friend's room. We were just relaxing on the bed and then apparently out of nowhere I dropped to the floor,” he said.
He remembered nothing of the episode, coming to as emergency responders and his friends and their parents hovered over him.
“I remember waking up after the seizure thinking that I just had a nap and I was very overwhelmed,” he said. “Because the first thing I see is I have EMS pricking my finger … the [friend’s] parents, the [friend’s] siblings, my friends were there. So it was very overwhelming.”
The implications of Luka’s seizure felt far more severe to his parents, who received a tearful call from his friend to let them know what happened.
“We jumped in the car and sped over there as fast as we could,” Kelly said. “We were just terrified.”
Kelly and Luka’s father drove him to the hospital, where she said they were met with skepticism that something as supposedly innocuous as vaping could cause a seizure.
“I told every hospital worker who came into his little cubicle that he had been heavily Juuling, that he was addicted to the Juul, and that I thought that was what was behind it. And I wanted them to test him for nicotine and they refused,” Kelly said. “[The reaction was] was, ‘Seizures were not consistent with nicotine use.’ And they did test him for other substances, which all came back negative.”
According to the FDA, seizures are a known potential adverse effect of nicotine poisoning.
“We’re seeing lots of kids complain about nicotine toxicity, things like headaches, stomachaches, vomiting,” said Dr. Sharon Levy, the director of the adolescent substance use and addiction program at Boston Children’s Hospital. ”We're seeing kids have seizures, that's related to very high nicotine levels that I have never in my career seen related to combustible cigarettes.”
Levy, a pediatrician who specializes in developmental behavioral medicine and addiction medicine, said the thinking that e-cigarettes and combustible cigarettes are at all equivalent is flawed and needs to be eliminated.
“I think when electronic cigarettes first hit the market, many of us were thinking about them as analogous to cigarettes, but without the smoke,” Levy said. “And it took us a while to realize that what we're looking at is really something a little bit different because in these new vaping products, what's happened is that the nicotine has become so concentrated.”
Critics say the high levels of nicotine coupled with pleasant flavoring and the misconception that the product at hand is harmless makes e-cigarettes especially attractive to teens like Luka.
“The number of kids who reported use of electronic cigarettes, or these new nicotine products, doubled between 2017 and 2018, and that's the largest increase in any single substance that's ever been recorded in more than 40 years of recording this data,” Levy said.
“When we talk about vulnerability, adolescents, teenagers, high schoolers are particularly vulnerable to becoming addicted to substances. And so nicotine is highly, highly addictive.
“We know that, everybody who's ever tried to quit smoking can really attest to how addictive nicotine is,” she continued. “The younger you are when you start using nicotine, or any other drug for that matter, the more likely you are to become addicted and the harder it's going to be to quit.”
Quitting would be the next hurdle Luka would face.
Luka’s parents had already begun looking into the possibility of sending him to rehab when he had his seizure, but finding a facility that would take his issue seriously and ensure he had no access to nicotine was nearly impossible, his mother said.
“I knew that if he had been in any kind of outpatient program to begin with he would have gone to school and Juuled, so it would've been ineffective,” Kelly said. “And so I knew he needed to be inpatient. And the only inpatient treatment that would take a kid who had a nicotine addiction was in California. So it was our only option and we knew that his life was dependent on it.”
Luka was less convinced of the severity of his problem.
“I was like, ‘I know I had a seizure. It's a one-off. It's a one-off thing,” he said.
Like many in the throes of addiction, the teen saw nothing wrong with the turn his life had taken, but fortunately for him, he had little say in the matter of what would happen next.
“The night before, they told me, ‘Hey, you're going to rehab for eight days.’ Which, granted, it was not [for] eight days,” Luka said with a laugh. “They only said that because they know I wouldn't have gotten on a plane otherwise. So they told me the night before and it was mandatory. It was either I do that or have police take me.”
Luka’s penchant for the dramatic was at an all-time high as he arrived at the facility, which treated boys between the ages of 12 and 17 suffering from a range of addictions. At the time, Luka was the only person there being treated for an addiction to e-cigarettes.
“Life's over,” he said of his mindset at the time. “All I could think was ‘I'm going to miss out on Halloween. I'm going to miss out on Thanksgiving. I'm going to miss out on all these things.’ So I was just thinking life was over.”
Being away from his friends and family for trick-or-treating and turkey would prove to be the least of Luka’s concerns.
“When you're in rehab, you're forced to sit in your own skin,” he said. “You're forced to sit in your own emotions and you're that 24/7, as long as you're in there. So it was absolutely a ringer. … I had so much anxiety. I was definitely a lot more irritable. I had insomnia. I could not sleep. … You're stripped to your phone, your contact with family, friends. You're stripped of your daily habits.
“You're stripped of your freedom to just sit alone and just take a break from life,” he continued. “So when you're in there, you're just constantly dealing with yourself. So it was absolutely surreal to look back on myself and my actions to see how much I'd hurt my family and friends and just the people around me.”
A turning point came about a month into his stay at the facility.
“It wasn't about until the fourth week, though, that I really recognized like, 'Hey, this is a problem. I really need to stop,'” he said.
The change was noticeable.
“You could hear it in his voice,” his mother said. “We were able to have a discussion about something we didn't necessarily agree with and not have an explosion.”
After 39 days in rehab, Luka was finally ready to return home. Then came the challenging task of finding a new normal.
“When I got home, life hadn't stopped for everybody out there,” Luka said.
He slowly waded back into the waters of socializing and school, opting to concentrate on his studies from home. He also made the hard but necessary decision to distance himself from some people he had previously believed were his friends.
“I realized some people I was only around to benefit or them to benefit from me,” Luka said. “So we were just using each other to get a fix. ... It's just like anything through life, no matter if you go to rehab or not, you're going to realize who your real friends are and who aren't.”
He also spent much of his time rebuilding trust with those he had let down.
“There are still times, even now, when I wonder is he being a normal moody teenager or is he using the Juul again because he's been out with his friends who do it,” Kelly said. “And I just had to trust him and I trust him more and more every day. But, you know, I frequently have to remind myself he's just being a teenager now.”
Friends who had no interest in vaping when Luka left for rehab were suddenly avid users by the time he returned home. Rather than view those social situations as an opportunity for temptation, Luka said it was cause for concern.
“You think of smoking Juul and you think that's just the norm,” he said. “So it's definitely overlooked.”
He began speaking out about his experience vaping and has since begun working with the Truth Initiative, a tobacco control organization “dedicated to achieving a culture where all youth and young adults reject tobacco.”
The nonprofit first set its sights on convincing young people to turn away from combustible cigarettes, and its campaigns were largely successful. Now, its focus is on spreading awareness about what they say are the risks of vaping.
“To put in perspective just how pervasive e-cigarette smoking is, when Truth launched in 2000 to combat combustible cigarette smoking, the smoking rate among youth and young adults was somewhere around 23% in 2000,” Eric Asche, chief marketing and strategy officer at Truth Initiative, told InsideEdition.com. “That number today is below 5%. It's 4.6%. If you compare that to where we are with high school vaping, that rate is 20% from 2018.”
The organization has specifically targeted Juul in its campaigns, maintaining that the company is largely responsible for what it calls an epidemic.
“Vaping really has burst on the scene and really come to cultural prominence as a direct result of Juul,” Asche said. “Four years ago, Juul was a virtually unknown player in the market, e-cigarettes space. Now they are the dominant player, owning over 75% of market share in just three short years.
“Juul has been so successful in large part because they have adopted big tobacco's playbook,” Asche said. “When they launched, they systematically targeted youth and young adults through a social media campaign.”
According to Asche, Juul tapped roughly 28,000 social influencers “to permeate their message, to spread usage, and to spread sort of the idea that vaping and Juul cigarettes should be part of culture.”
“We have no idea if Juul's an effective cessation device because they have never submitted their product for that type of rigor and testing,” he continued. “And so, while they talk about the device perhaps being something for cessation in the tool, they haven't submitted it that way through the FDA. It's largely unregulated and the only reason they are now talking about this as a cessation tool is because they've been called on the carpet for the practices in the past.”
Asche’s concerns have been echoed by many, including lawmakers, public health officials, parents and educators, who have called on authorities to make e-cigarettes less attractive to teens.
Michigan last week became the first state in the country to announce it planned to ban flavored vape products, while the White House on Wednesday followed suit, saying it would ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes, excluding tobacco flavors. The ban would include mint and menthol.
The Food and Drug Administration will outline a plan within the coming weeks for removing the flavors from the market, according to Alex Azar II, the health and human services secretary, the New York Times reported.
“We strongly agree with the need for aggressive category-wide action on flavored products,” a Juul Labs spokesperson told InsideEdition.com. “We will fully comply with the final FDA policy when effective.”
The founders of Juul have historically denied they ever marketed their products to teenagers, and the spokesperson said to InsideEdition.com all Juul products include a prominent warning label that states they contain nicotine.
“Our company exists to help adult smokers switch from combustible cigarettes, which remain the leading cause of preventable death around the world, and our products were designed only to provide adult smokers with a viable, satisfying alternative to combustible cigarettes,” the spokesperson said. “We do not want any non-nicotine users to buy Juul products, and are especially committed to preventing underage access to our products.”
Being known as “the Juul kid” is not always easy.
“I've had adults tell me I'm uninformed and I shouldn't be talking to people,” Luka said. “I'll get a lot of feedback from people online and I'll definitely have just people that are just missing an opportunity and not opening their ears and they're just being blatantly rude. I've had death threats. I've had been called racial slurs. I've had a lot of vulgarity. So I've definitely been through quite a bit of it.”
But the criticism doesn’t dissuade Luka, who said his occasional discomfort doesn’t outweigh the importance of speaking out and letting his peers know they’re not alone.
“Teenagers, we're very vulnerable,” Luka said.
Like her son, Kelly said she knows how important it is to shed light on this issue and be a source of comfort for others going through what her family experienced.
“I hear from parents every day from all over the country that are going through the same thing and are looking for help and not having as much luck as we had with insurance and finding a treatment facility,” Kelly said. “We're very fortunate to be on the other side.”