After years of promoting tobacco prevention and cessation programs, health officials are gearing up for a another round of public education targeting electronic cigarettes. While studies show e-cigarette use has grown modestly among North Dakota adults, it has taken off among youth.
The number of North Dakota high school youth reporting e-cigarette use at least once in the past 30 days was 19.1 percent in 2017, up from 1.6 percent in 2011 in the Youth Tobacco Survey. Youth who have ever tried e-cigarettes went from 4.5 percent in 2011 to 13.4 percent in 2013. Numbers rose again to 38 percent in 2015 and 39.1 percent in 2017.
The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed 20.6 percent of North Dakota high school students are current e-cigarette users and 41 percent have tried vaping.
“We don’t necessarily see the correlation that youth are switching to e-cigarettes but we are seeing the amount of youth that just try e-cigarettes is huge and it’s increasing. There are kids who will never touch a cigarette but will use electronic,” said Neil Charvat, program director for Tobacco Prevention and Control with the State Health Department.
The increased use is concerning because of the link shown between nicotine on young brains and the increased propensity for addiction generally, he said.
“I have been seeing, for the last year and half, these devices expand to a segment of the young population that would never have thought of smoking,” said Pat McKone, regional senior director with the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest. “Last year, for the first time, e-cigarette use surpassed regular cigarette use with youth.”
With the introduction of various new electronic products, there’s a sense of having to return to start with education efforts in tobacco control and prevention, said McKone, who has worked in the field for 40 years.
“We have to educate youth and parents and decision makers about these devices and raise the alarm,” she said. Although not as dangerous as smoking – the main cause of preventable death in the nation – vaping is not better than breathing clean air nor is there much advantage to being “not as bad as the worst,” she said.
The American Lung Association supports restricting electronic products to adults-only tobacco stores and raising the tax to make products less affordable to youth. The association recently gave North Dakota failing grades on a state report card for its low tobacco tax of 44 cents per pack and law allowing the sale of tobacco to anyone age 18 and older. The association advocates raising the age of sale to 21.
The association credits programs and policies that adequately fund prevention efforts and help people quit for dropping adult and youth cigarette smoking rates to historically low levels. Overall, 16.4 percent of American adults and 19.8 percent of North Dakota adults smoked in 2016. In 2016, eight percent of American high school students smoked cigarettes. North Dakota high school youth had a 12.6 percent smoking rate in 2017.
“The state was smart to set aside money for tobacco prevention, and I think we were able to achieve a lot,” said Kira Lampton, prevention outreach coordinator at First District Health Unit, Minot.
But she now also sees tobacco education efforts needing to start over to address new forms of nicotine delivery. She is talking with schools to advocate for updated comprehensive policies on tobacco use. Schools are encouraged not to take money from tobacco companies to support youth programs, and students need to have opportunities to get help with quitting, she said.
“Our biggest thing is working in partnership with our schools so we can educate their staff on new things coming out and provide them with resources,” she said.