The E-cigarette revolution has found its way into the hands (and lungs) of many underage smokers. A University of Arizona researcher is working to lessen the frequency of young smokers.

When the problems advance, the solutions must advance as well. This is what UA College of Nursing professor Judith Gordon realized when she helped develop “Click City: Tobacco,” a smoking prevention computer program designed for fifth graders. And while the program was effective in helping children against the lures of traditional tobacco, the recent emergence of e-cigarettes changed everything. 

There’s a big difference with e-cigarettes, Gordon said, as they’re use is much more common among youth than traditional cigarettes. 

“The environment around e-cigarettes is trying to sell the product as something cool and hip,” Gordon said. “They’re taking a page right out of the playbook of tobacco companies from thirty years ago.” 

Click City: Tobacco is an online, school-based program for fifth graders in which students engage with one another over the computer in virtual environments. Activities in Click City: Tobacco  involve traveling inside cigarettes to learn about the chemical ingredients and associated health effects, or using a time machine to virtually travel through time to see what happens to parts of the body when someone uses tobacco. 

The program was found to be effective in reducing kids’ intentions to smoke, Gordon said, especially in children who are at-risk to smoke, such as those whose parents smoke.

Gordon, along with multiple other researchers, developed and implemented Click City: Tobacco in Oregon public schools from 2005 to 2012. A report titled “Short-term Efficacy of Click City®: Tobacco,” stated that the program “has the potential to postpone or prevent initiation of cigarette use.” 

But, the program has never been used in an attempt to combat the growing trend of vaping. 

However, a recent $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research allows updates to Click City: Tobacco to address the hazards of e-cigarettes and other vaping products. The two-year grant will be used to develop additional content based around e-cigarettes. Some of the content will be completely new, and some will be updates to existing activities. The plan is for the new content to be tested out in both Oregon and Arizona schools. 

“We want to make sure the product we’re making is effective,” Gordon said. “And then we want to make it available for schools nationwide.” 

The growing trend of e-cigarettes even reached local schools. Just earlier this year, Catalina Foothills School District sent a letter to the community warning parents of the risks involved from their children vaping. 

“We have seen a recent spike in incidents involving student vaping,” said Denise Bartlett, CFSD Assistant Superintendent, in the letter to parents. “While this has mainly been present at the high school, there have now been incidents of vaping at our middle schools as well. At this point in the school year, 52.6 [percent] of the high school’s discipline referrals were due to e-cigarettes. This is up from 35.6 [percent] for the entire last school year.” 

According to a health report by Harvard University, e-cigarettes can be a healthy alternative to those already addicted to smoking. But people who are not already smoking should avoid e-cigarettes, as they still contain nicotine, which increases the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, and may cause chronic lung diseases. High-wattage vaporizers may also generate significant amounts of formaldehyde and other toxins.

“There are misconceptions that e-cigarettes are harmless,” Gordon said. “We don’t know the long-term effects because they are too new, but in the short term they appear to be less harmful than traditional cigarettes. But we know that they are not harmless.” 

Gordon said the most important issue with the emergence of e-cigarettes is the addiction potential. The earlier someone starts an addiction, the more it will affect the growth of their brain and have the potential to lead to a lifelong addiction. 

“That is our primary concern,” Gordon said. “Nicotine is nicotine, no matter how someone takes it.” 

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