In the Blue Room of the White House, Barbers Hill senior Ally Harrison told first lady Melania Trump how vaping has impacted her life amid an increased focus on vaping by young people.
Harrison, 18, said she suffered from physical and mental ailments, including heart palpitations and panic attacks. Friends encouraged her to vape, assuring her it would calm you down.
But it had the opposite effect.
“I had worse panic attacks. The fear was always there,” Harrison said.
The Barbers Hill senior started smoking e-cigarettes at the age of 14 when she was a freshman and stopped at 17. The habit would increase along with the level of nicotine to the point that vaping was not enough, leading her to smoke tobacco cigarettes.
Harrison has since quit smoking and said she no longer has panic attacks, she can breathe clearly and her heart issues have stopped.
“I just feel like a new person,” Harrison said.
Being among eight other students from across the U.S. and in front of the first lady, Wednesday was nothing short of inspiring for Harrison, who emphasized how serious the issue is among young people.
“The trip has been extremely helpful because I didn’t think anyone was going to listen to little old me — a girl from a tiny town in Texas,” Harrison said. “To have other people that have gone through what I’ve been through and who want to put voices together to get that message across was so empowering. I was with people who understand that this is a huge issue and that bad things have happened from it.”
“They know it’s serious, they treat it as a real issue and they’re committed to stopping it,” she added.
The group discussion at the White House comes as the CDC reports that more than 1,000 people in 48 states have been affected by a lung infection caused by vaping. As of Oct. 1, the CDC confirmed there had been 18 vaping-related deaths.
Federal statistics also show a significant increase in vaping among teens between 2017 and 2018. More than 1 in 4 high school students reported vaping in the past month, up from 1 in 5 students in 2018, according to the latest statistics.
“We need to be proactive before it gets out of control,” Trump said at the White House listening session.
The first lady has expressed deep concern about the growing epidemic of e-cigarette use by children. She also sat with President Donald Trump when he announced that the federal government would act to ban thousands of flavors used in e-cigarettes, mostly the fruity flavors that are believed to entice young people to start vaping.
“We need to do all we can to protect the public from tobacco-related disease and death, and prevent e-cigarettes from becoming an on-ramp to nicotine addiction for a generation of youth,” the first lady tweeted last month.
To sit with the first lady in an informal setting to tell her story was a surreal and motivating experience for Harrison, who will continue to advocate against vaping.
“She was just absolutely amazing,” Harrison said of Trump. “She was so loving to each person and went around and talked individually, one-on-one, to each person. She personally thanked me for sharing my story and encouraged me to keep going.”
“She really empowered me,” she added. “And it taught me that no matter who you are if you have the motivation, if you have determination and if you have a message, it will pay off.”
Harrison plans to use this momentum by making a difference in her own community and said she would spend time to reflect on how best to make a difference.
“It would be great to get an organization going where kids can get educated and counseled if they’re having issues (with e-cigarettes),” Harrison said.
The inspiring trip would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit, anti-tobacco organization that brought the group of nine students to meet with the first lady.
The Truth Initiative wants the federal government to ban all flavors used in vaping, including mint and menthol, among other steps.
In addition to the invite, Harrison was awarded a $10,000 scholarship, which was offered since she is a subscriber of the nonprofit.
“I thought, well this is a shot in the dark so why not,” Harrison said. “So I came home after school, sat down, filmed a short video, answered a few questions and sent it in with my fingers crossed.”
Six months later, Harrison found herself face-to-face with Trump.
Amid an increased focus on vaping by young people, some big-name retailers have said they will no longer sell those products.
Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, said last month that it will stop selling electronic cigarettes at its namesake stores and Sam’s Clubs in the U.S. when it sells out its current inventory.
Kroger and Walgreens also announced Monday they would follow Walmart’s lead.
Juul Labs Inc., the nation’s largest maker of e-cigarettes, is ending advertising in the U.S.
Industry groups, such as the American Vaping Association, which represents makers and retailers of e-cigarettes and vaping solutions, oppose a ban. They argue that it could create a “black market” for vaping products and push adults who vape — as an alternative to traditional cigarettes — to resume smoking.