Colorado teen vaping rates highest in country
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Tobacco use is increasing among Routt County youth, much of that due to the popularity of e-cigarettes or vape pens.
All local high schools are also seeing an increase in the use of chewing tobacco, snuff and dip, as well as an increase in regular cigarettes at Hayden and Steamboat Springs high schools.
Across Colorado, youth are vaping nicotine at twice the national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorado had the highest vaping rate of 37 states surveyed.
“Kids are back to thinking that smoking is cool,” said Lindsey Simbeye at a presentation before the Hayden Board of Education.
The biggest challenge is in education and perception of harm, said Simbeye — who is the executive director of Grand Futures Prevention Coalition — especially when it comes to the battery-powered e-cigarettes, which heat flavored liquid nicotine into easy to inhale vapor.
State law prohibits the purchase of e-cigarettes to anyone younger than 18, but data suggests teens aren’t having much trouble with access.
With flavors like mango, peanut and jam, fruit medley, cool cucumber and crème brulee, a manufacturer called JUUL holds 60 percent of the e-cigarette market in a rapidly growing industry estimated for a 2018 worth of $5.5 billion.
At a cost of about $35 each, JUUL’s sleek compact devices look like flash drives, and can be charged in a USB port.
While the company promotes the devices as a healthier option for traditional smokers, “Clearly they are marketing to kids,” said Kristi Brown, health and wellness coordinator for Hayden and South Routt school districts. In terms of nicotine content, one JUUL pod is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes.
There are about 600 different kinds of e-cigarettes available in stores and online, and about 8,000 varieties of liquid refills. JUUL is currently the most popular on the market, and has itself become a verb.
Simbeye opened a manila envelope full of vape devices for the board members to see just how stealth the habit can be.
“There’s not really anything out there you can consume and hide so well,” she said.
One had been stuffed into the modified shell of a Sharpie marker. They’ve also been disguised as car keys, Altoid boxes and inhalers. There is even a hooded sweatshirt on the market with a vape pen built into the hood’s string.
By holding smoke in or breathing it down a shirt, students can even sneak in a hit in the middle of class.
“If you were to design your ideal nicotine-delivery device to addict large numbers of United States kids, you’d invent Juul,” pediatrician and professor Harvard Medical School professor Jonathan Winickoff said in an article in The New Yorker. “It’s absolutely unconscionable. The earlier these companies introduce the product to the developing brain, the better the chance they have a lifelong user.”
Some teens will argue it’s harmless and just flavored water vapor. But that’s rarely true – many contain potentially cancer-causing toxins, and nearly all contain nicotine. All vareities of JUULs contain nicotine.
Are they safer than cigarettes? By most accounts, yes.
If you are a smoker, are you better off switching to e-cigarettes? By most accounts, yes, though the research is still too new.
Are they completely safe? No.
And is it a good habit for kids to start? No.
Even JUUL claims to be making efforts to keep products out of the hands of underage users.
The Food and Drug Administration is currently debating on whether to restrict or ban flavors in the liquid. They are also investigating youth marketing by JUUL.
Nicotine is not only one of the most addictive substances, Simbeye said, but also the hardest to quit.
And it isn’t necessarily known what additional chemicals might be in liquid pods — especially the knock-offs. Some studies have shown evidence of potentially unsafe levels of metals, with devices emitting vapors with lead, chromium, manganese and nickel. Diacetyl has also been found in pods, a compound linked to the deaths and irreversible lung cancer found in microwave popcorn factory workers. Diacetyl has since been banned from popcorn.
JUUL’s e-cigarette liquid contains glycerol, propylene glycol, nicotine, benzoic acid and food-grade flavoring — all used in other consumable products. But it does have a higher concentration of nicotine than many of the other e-cigarettes.
At this point, there isn’t enough long-term research, Brown argued. “We don’t even know the effects,” she said. “It’s frightening.”
The FDA didn’t regulate e-cigarettes until 2016, and there is emerging evidence suggesting nicotine may interfere with cognitive development, executive functioning and inhibitory control in developing brains before age 25.
According to several recent studies, young adults who use e-cigarettes are more than four times more likely to begin smoking tobacco cigarettes than peers who don’t vape.
Local data gives good reason to be concerned about a recent increase in use of traditional cigarettes and chew.
Kids are more susceptible to addiction, and even the possibility of increasing the chance kids will use traditional cigarettes or other tobacco products to feed their nicotine addiction means opening the door to a habit which kills 480,000 people — or nearly one in five people — each year in the U.S. It means opening the door to a habit that causes cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and strokes and harms nearly every organ in your body.
“The best we can do is get in front of it as quickly as we can,” Simbeye said.
She also advocates for approaches to discipline in schools that don’t involve suspensions or expulsions. This may just encourage more of the same behavior, she said.
As an alternative, she described one school requiring students caught chewing, smoking or vaping to make a presentation on the risks. And schools cannot and should not have to address the issue alone, she said, putting responsibility on the whole community and emphasizes collaboration in setting the example on what is cool and “having honest, educated conversations with our kids.” Not just using fear tactics.
Simbeye also cannot emphasize the education piece enough. She has a lot of faith that once teens understand the potential harm, they won’t be deceived by slick marketing tactics or willing to jeopardize their health for what is perceived to be cool.
If about 20 to 35 percent of local high school students are vaping, then most still aren’t, she said.
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Grand County voters will be deciding on a number of issues this November from tax increases to school board memberships. Ballots were mailed out last week and Election Day is Nov. 2.