How widespread is vaping among teenagers? FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb calls the problem an “epidemic.” Sara Moriarty (pictured above), director of the Hampden County Tobacco Free Community Partnership (TFCP), pointed out at a recent Vaping Prevention Mini-Conference that 41.1 percent of high school students had used e-cigarettes or vape pens in 2017. “Among high school youth, the current use of e-cigarettes was higher than any other tobacco products combined,” she said.

Gándara Center is the host agency for the TFCP and Moriarty was a featured presenter at the Mini-Conference, which took place on January 18 at West Springfield High School. The event, which also included remarks from Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni, was attended by leadership teams from Hampden County school districts, including administrators, school resource officers, prevention specialists, and counselors.

Alarmed by a sharp spike in vaping and companies such as JUUL tailoring and marketing their products to younger users, attendees were seeking strategies to curb youth vaping of not only e-liquids that contain nicotine and harmful chemicals, but also in some cases marijuana oil.

According to a report last fall from the Centers for Disease Control, e-cigarette use among high school students increased 78 percent from 2017 to 2018.

E-cigarettes, with batteries and disposable e-liquid cartridges, imitate the look and feel of a combustible cigarette. Vape pens, on the other hand, are rechargeable, use a tank to hold the e-liquid, and are generally larger. JUULs are small e-cigarettes that look like flash drives. About 15 years ago, all these devices were first used as smoking cessation aids. But in recent years vaping has raised its own concerns as a gateway for pre-teens and teens to smoke real cigarettes.

“In 2018, almost 18 percent of eighth-graders admitted to vaping, and 33 percent of 10th graders reported vaping,” said Gulluni. “We’re seeing a significant uptick in vaping and e-cigarette use among our young people. While it might seem like less threatening than traditional smoking, we know it develops a propensity to go onto cigarettes, marijuana, and other drugs.”

Indeed, Moriarty pointed out that nicotine can prime the adolescent brain for addiction to other substances. “Studies show that people who start smoking or using tobacco products in adolescence smoke more and have a more difficult time quitting than people who start smoking later in life,” she said.

Moriarty also noted that e-cigarette use is rising as e-cigarette advertising grows, and that younger people are more likely to use flavored products—although JUUL has recently stopped selling several types of flavored pods in retail locations and closed its social media accounts after pressure from the FDA.

Beginning on January 1, 2019, the legal age to purchase tobacco products in Massachusetts rose from 18 to 21. Nevertheless, there was a consensus at the mini-conference that more needs to be accomplished to reduce youth vaping. Attendees used the event to network and share strategies that are working in their respective schools. Moriarty said that it is important that these strategies also include engaging and educating parents as often as possible and making sure that there is an effort to build community support around this issue.

“There is a real need for youth cessation services across the state—and cessation services in general—but youth cessation services are really lacking, and providers are struggling to find methods that work to address vaping, along with medications and other nicotine replacement therapies that are safe to use with youth,” said Moriarty. “This is all fairly new and the numbers are overwhelming, so doctors and providers are scrambling to fill gaps and treat youth and answer questions from concerned parents.”

Gulluni noted that it is crucial for school administrators, teachers, and parents to talk with one another about the vaping epidemic and to discuss it with young people. “For adults, vaping may be a better alternative to smoking,” he said, “but when we’re talking about 12-, 13, and 14-year-olds vaping, this is a real threat.”

The Vaping Prevention Mini-Conference’s sponsors included the Stop Access Springfield Coalition, a substance use reduction group that is coordinated by Gándara Center and funded by a grant from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The other sponsors of the event were the Western Mass School Substance Abuse Counselors’ Association, the Hampden County DA’s Office, the West Springfield Care Coalition, and CLOSE Community (Longmeadow).

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