Vaping among youth a growing concern
E-cigarettes and vaping have led to an upsurge in the number of young adults addicted to nicotine and using tobacco products, according to research from the Food and Drug Administration. The products have also been linked to hundreds of illnesses and dozens of deaths across the country. Laura Daak, coordinator of the Kandiyohi County Drug-Free Communities Coalition, spoke to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners recently about the dangers of vaping.
WILLMAR — While there has been significant progress over the years in decreasing the number of children and young adults who pick up smoking, a new technology is beginning to reverse those gains as millions of teenagers are turning to electronic cigarettes or other devices used for vaping.
"The e-cigarette use is now an epidemic," according to the Federal Food and Drug Administration, said Laura Daak, Kandiyohi County Drug-Free Communities Coalition coordinator. She is also the Drug-Free Communities grant coordinator
Daak gave an in-depth presentation about vaping at the Dec. 17 meeting of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners
While high school smoking continues to drop — only about 6 in 100 high schoolers admit to smoking cigarettes, according to an FDA survey in 2019 — approximately 1 in 4 high school students have used an e-cigarette product in the last 30 days, which is about a 78 percent increase from the past year.
"Kids are liking this new technology," Daak said.
When asked, most young e-cigarette users said they were drawn to vaping by friends and because they were enticed by the flavors they could try.
"There are over 20,000 flavors right now," ranging from fruit to candy, Daak said. "The main point is they are enticing our youth with flavors."
One vaping pod, used in the popular Juul brand of e-cigarettes, has the same amount of nicotine as one pack of cigarettes and is cheaper to buy. A starter vaping kit from Juul can cost around $20 or less. While the current age to buy tobacco and e-cigarettes is 18, many minors are still getting their hands on them, either through the internet or from older friends.
"It is very easy for kids to be able to purchase," Daak said.
E-cigarettes started showing up on the market about a decade ago. At first they looked a lot like regular cigarettes, but now they've taken the shape of many innocuous items including USB drives, lipstick, pens and highlighters. One e-cigarette product even looks like an asthma inhaler.
"There is an evolution of these e-cigarettes since they came out," Daak said. "We are already on a fourth generation right now."
Vaping devices are also being built into sweatshirts and watches. People can be vaping without letting anyone else know.
"It is making it really difficult for adults, parents and school staff to identify these devices. That is why we need to continue to educate the public on what to look for," Daak said.
Surveys and research have also shown that many teenagers who use e-cigarettes don't know the products contain nicotine and many other dangerous elements, Daak said.
"They really think the vapor coming off these e-cigarettes is just water vapor, harmless water vapor," Daak said. "In fact it isn't. They have the heavy metals, cancer-causing agents in there. It is putting our adults and children at risk."
Not only is nicotine very addictive and hard to quit, for children it can be even worse. Since e-cigarettes have become popular over the last decade, the number of nicotine poisonings and number of illnesses have increased.
"We've had a huge increase in 911 calls for the poison control center" due to nicotine issues, Daak said. Overdoses of nicotine can even kill young children.
This past year, nearly 50 have died, and thousands are suffering from lung illnesses suffered due to vaping products with tetrahydrocannabinol, one of the main components in marijuana. The FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have focused on vitamin E acetate as the cause of the lung issues. The compound is used to dilute the THC oil used in some vaping products.
Daak said approximately 44 percent of e-cigarette users have never used another tobacco product before.
"It really points to how well these e-cigarette companies are marketing," Daak said.
These companies also say they don't specifically market to youth, but Daak said the packaging of the products, the flavors and the ads tell a different story. Juul, the most well known e-cigarette producer, doesn't even market much any more, because its young users are doing it for them on social media, Daak said.
"They are marketing to youth, even though they say they are not," Daak said.
It is a mission of the Drug-Free Coalition to try to find ways to reduce e-cigarette use, along with keeping smoking rates down as well. One possible solution Daak spoke of was raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21.
At the Dec. 17 County Board meeting, the commissioners said they would wait to see what the state would do before taking up the issue themselves, but the federal government beat them to it.
The president on Dec. 20 signed federal legislation that raises the nationwide age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarette products to 21. It will go into effect later in 2020.
Other ways to help make it harder for youth to vape would be to restrict or reduce the type and number of vendors allowed to sell the products and reduce or prohibit the sale of flavored products.
"We want to stop these kids from starting in the first place," Daak said.
The commissioners were grateful for the information Daak presented, though they were not happy with what they learned.
"It is just disgusting that a business, to just make a buck, would go that far, to that extreme, to target our youth that way," Commissioner Corky Berg said.
They hope solutions can be found and that the state government gets on board as well.
"We need to address this," Berg said.