Last month, the El Paso County Board of Health signed a resolution aimed at protecting area youth from developing nicotine addictions via the rising popularity of electronic smoking devices (ESDs) like e-cigarettes, declaring vaping a “public health crisis.”
This resolution follows an executive order made in November by then-Governor John Hickenlooper, directing state agencies to take action “to limit the use of tobacco products, vaping products and e-cigarettes by youth.”
Dacia Hudson, the program manager for the Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership at El Paso County Public Health (TEPP), agrees that the situation is urgent.
“The reason that the surgeon general came out and called youth vaping an epidemic is because the numbers are rising so quickly — and we’ve never seen a substance among use rise as quickly as we’re seeing vaping,” she said. “It’s kind of to sound the alarm: this is a problem, we need to do something about it, and we need to do it now.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated last year that Colorado youth are vaping at twice the national average — 27 percent compared to the nationwide 13. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment conducted a separate survey, discovering that about half of Colorado teenagers have tried vaping.
In El Paso County, the results were even more severe: while 44 percent of teens here have tried ESDs at least once (for comparison, 60 percent have tried alcohol, and 39 percent marijuana), 28 percent of youth in El Paso County are actively using a variety of nicotine products. Of those, 7 percent use cigarettes; 10 percent use other products like chewing tobacco; and 23 percent use e-cigarettes or other vaping devices. Teens who use ESDs are also almost five times more likely to take up smoking cigarettes within one year.
The prevalence of vaping among teenagers is due, in part, to the way e-cigarettes are heavily marketed at young people by tobacco industries.
“Vaping comes in over 15,000 different flavors of e-liquids, and kids are drawn to those fun flavors that mimic candy and things like that,” Hudson said, “… and Colorado has historically been a test market for new and emerging tobacco products.”
A lack of regulation has also allowed electronic smoking devices to permeate the market, becoming accessible to young people in spite of the age restriction on their purchase. Internet sales have also been a hurdle to preventing teen access to vaping paraphernalia.
Early this month, a bipartisan bill was introduced to the Colorado general assembly that would update the “Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act” to more thoroughly regulate the sale and use of electronic smoking devices, including requiring all ESD retailers to be licensed. The bill is currently under consideration.
Another impetus for the dramatic rise in vaping among teens is the ubiquitous perception that electronic smoking devices are less harmful that more well-known tobacco products like cigarettes.
More than 90 percent of vaping devices tested prove to contain nicotine, among other dangerous, habit-forming substances.
“(Electronic smoking devices) definitely (have) carcinogens in the aerosol,” Hudson said, “heavy metals, formaldehyde, diacetyl … nicotine is dangerous for developing brains. It affects their ability to make decisions and pay attention and stuff like that, and raises the chances for them to become addicted to other things as well.”
While cigarette use among young people has dropped in recent years, schools and parents are struggling to combat the increasing prevalence of vaping. It doesn’t help that electronic smoking devices are small, easily concealed, built to resemble myriad other objects (like flash drives and pens), and that vaping clouds dissipate quickly, making them hard to smell or see.
TEPP has been partnering with schools and community organizations to brief parents and teachers about the crisis.
“Right now, we are trying to educate and raise awareness,” Hudson said. “We’re educating schools, teachers, staff, children, students, parents and community members. … What we’re trying to do now is lay the foundation because so many people don’t know how much it’s affecting our youth. … We can change the norm and send the message to kids that this is unsafe.”