In Spokane and around the nation, the grown-ups are trying to clear the air about e-cigarettes.
Their message: that vaping may be less dangerous than conventional cigarettes, but it’s still a health hazard for millions of young Americans who don’t understand that the products contain nicotine.
The big news came this week: E-cigarette use among high school students is up 75 percent from a year ago, according to data compiled by the Food and Drug Administration.
“We cannot allow a whole new generation to become addicted to nicotine,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who declared youth vaping an “epidemic” and threatened to halt sales of flavored electronic cigarettes in 60 days if major manufacturers can’t show more evidence that they’re doing enough to keep them away from minors.
“No one can look at the data and say there’s no problem,” Gottlieb said.
More than 2 million Americans ages 12 through 22 use the battery-powered devices to heat liquid-based nicotine into an inhalable vapor.
Nearly 12 percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students used the device in the past 30 days, according to a survey released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The problem is just as acute locally.
Ten years ago, almost one-third of Spokane County teens illegally drank alcohol. Today, that number is only 17 percent. Use of conventional cigarettes also plummeted during that time, from 16 percent to less than 7 percent.
Today in Spokane County, almost one in six teens uses e-cigarettes, which appear to have captured much of the youth market that once abused alcohol.
For many, the key word is marketing, from the sweet, fruity flavors to their youth-friendly placement in many stores.
Even the flavor names, from “It’s Berry Fluffy!” to “Ya Killin’ Me S’mores” – are an enticement to minors.
“But many of them don’t realize that when they’re using a flavored vapor, they’re being exposed to nicotine,” said Jared O’Connor, a health educator with the Washington Poison Center.
Adults have noticed. AJ Sanders, a member of the Spokane Regional Health Board, said the group is preparing mailers to area stores to encourage placement of e-cigarettes away from candies and similar products.
A bigger problem is the fact that tobacco and e-cigarettes are legal for 18-year-olds, who purchase them for younger classmates.
Statistics from the Spokane Regional Health District indicate 65 percent of youth tobacco users in Spokane said in a survey that they got their products from someone else.
For that reason, the agency backed an unsuccessful effort last year to raise the smoking age to 21.
“One of the things our agency has been involved in is educating our elected officials about the health benefits of raising the age, which has been shown to be a best practice,” Sanders said.
Many youngsters haven’t gotten the message. While e-cigs are proven to help current smokers quit, they have the opposite effect on youth. A national study of 12- to 17-year-olds by JAMA Pediatrics, a journal published by the American Medical Association, found that those who vape are twice as likely as nonusers to become regular smokers within a year.
For health and school officials, the most vexing development is the rise of the Juul, a sleek device that looks like a flash drive and comes with pods in flavors that include mango and crème.
Three years after its launch, Juul Labs controls 72 percent of the market and is valued by investors at $16 billion.
Even more enticing to teens, the devices are easily concealable.
“It’s definitely become more of a problem,” said Shawn Jordan, supervising director of secondary programs and special services for Spokane Public Schools.
Teachers and administrators confiscate the devices when they’re detected, which is seldom.
“We’re definitely dealing with it, but students are obviously doing it very discreetly,” Jordan said.
Educators also hope to amplify the message about the health effects of vaping.
“There’s really a lot of misinformation out there,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said.
“We hear students say, ‘It’s better for me than smoking,’ so we have to do a better job of educating them,” Redinger said.
One step ahead of parents and teachers, teens have found a new habit: pot vaping.
“It’s only a matter of time” before adolescents are vaping nicotine and pot in equal measure, Mila Vascones-Gatski, a substance abuse counselor at Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, told Kaiser Health News.
“Anything in liquid form can go into a vape, and that’s scary,” Vascones-Gatski said.
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