A local 17-year-old gave a sobering answer when asked recently how often he vapes.
“All day, every day,” he responded. He told World-Herald reporter Emily Nitcher that he started at age 15 and indulges in the vaping habit in school hallways, bathrooms and, sometimes, in the classroom.
Unfortunately, his situation is from far from uncommon. As Nitcher’s reporting showed, Omaha-area school personnel say they’re seeing a dramatic increase in the e-cigarette habit among high school and middle school students.
“I’m nervous that people won’t really understand what’s happening until we have an entire generation of kids addicted to nicotine because of e-cigarettes,” said Autumn Sky Burns, the Sarpy County coordinator of Tobacco Education & Advocacy of the Midlands.
Nationally, the number of students surveyed who say they’ve tried vaping has increased since 2017 by some 78 percent among high school students and almost 48 percent among middle schoolers, according to a new survey released by Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the survey, 3.6 million kids reported vaping at least once in the previous 30 days. In addition, 28 percent of high school respondents said they used e-cigarettes at least 20 days a month.
“It’s rampant,” said David Friedli, principal at Conestoga Junior-Senior High School in Murray, Nebraska. Friedli previously served as the project director of Toward a Drug Free Nebraska Project, a joint effort between the Nebraska Department of Education and the Governor’s Office.
The teen interviewed by Nitcher estimated 80 percent of his classmates use e-cigarettes. While 18 is the legal age to buy e-cigarettes, teens get around that, he said, by having friends buy the devices or by going to convenience stores that fail to check IDs.
E-cigarettes arose as a tool to help adults reduce their reliance on conventional cigarettes. But due to the addictive effect of the devices’ nicotine content, vaping can transition teenagers into cigarette smoking — and the major health threats it presents. This has quickly become a major public health challenge for our country. Nicotine, whether ingested through vaping or smoking, may affect adolescent brain development. Vaping has some of the same heart risks as smoking, and the chemicals in vaping liquids can harm lung tissue and trigger asthma attacks.
The appropriate response must be multi-pronged, involving government regulatory action at the state and local levels, restrictions by school districts, health education outreach and conversations between teens and their parents or guardians.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently announced his agency’s new restrictions to reduce teens’ access to vaping devices. He stated bluntly: “The bottom line is this: I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes. We won’t let this pool of kids, a pool of future potential smokers, to continue to build.”
In generations past, many Americans took up smoking, belatedly coming to understand the harm they had done to their health. Now, society needs to help teenagers reach that important awareness before they travel too far down a road they may later regret.