Madeleine Zheng, a senior at University High School, passes by three vape shops on her way to school. Adriana Noriega, a senior at Cholla High School, has witnessed her peers using e-cigarettes in the school halls, bathrooms and even in class.
These are not rare cases: According to the Centers for Disease Control, the amount of youth e-cigarette users in the nation increased by 1.5 million from 2017 to 2018.
In an attempt to combat this growing trend, the Pima County Health Department, alongside several school districts, is launching a youth vaping awareness campaign titled “The Real Deal on Vaping.”
“Nearly half of teens in Arizona have tried e-cigarettes or vapes,” said Pima County Health Department Director Marcy Flanagan. “This is a stark contrast to the prediction we had of a tobacco-free generation by 2030.” Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams describes the growing trend of vaping in schools as a crisis and an epidemic.
“Thirty years ago we had an epidemic on smoking,” Williams said. “And unfortunately we find ourselves in the same situation today. But this time we won’t stand for it for another 30 years.”
For the Real Deal on Vaping Campaign, PCHD will provide a “Tobacco Prevention Resource Toolkit” to parents, schools and physicians which includes access to help lines, information on how to talk to youth about vaping and guidelines for combating vaping on school campuses. Another major component of combating the growth is a social media campaign to “meet students where they are: on social media.”
In addition to providing these resources, PCHD will offer on-site presentations about the dangers of vaping and nicotine addiction.
“We want to address this problem appropriately and aggressively, and this means attacking the problem at schools.” said Deputy Guy Marchal, a student resource officer for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. “Vapes are a bit naughty, a bit edgy, and they’re electronics, so they’ll draw kids toward them. But these devices are patently illegal for kids to have… There is a criminal liability on adults who provide vapes to kids.”
Many e-cigarette cartridges contain as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes. The CDC estimates 8 percent of high school students have smoked cigarettes, while 20 have used e-cigarettes.
Teens using e-cigarettes for nicotine consumption is only part of the problem. Vapes and e-cigarettes can also be used for smoking marijuana concentrates, which contain high levels of THC.
According to police reports from the Oro Valley Police Department, in November 2018, a pair of Canyon del Oro students picked up drug use charges after a student reported feeling dizzy, nauseous and had a racing heart after using a THC vaporizor before class. The student was experiencing tremors and had a heart rate of 132 beats per minute. This March, another pair of CDO students was caught exchanging vaporizers and THC cartridges at school.
Superintendent Williams has also received calls from concerned parents, including from one father whose seventh-grade daughter was bullied into trying an e-cigarette.
“I think teachers and parents are aware of the risks of tobacco, but there’s a lack of information on the risks of vaping,” Zheng said. “They’re deceptively innocent-looking… E-cigarettes are marketed as less-dangerous, but they’re still dangerous.”
Some accuse tobacco companies of covertly marketing their products to underage users by shifting from cigarettes to vapes. Nicotine vaporizers now offer flavors such as cotton candy and birthday cake, and some devices are colorful and bedazzled.
“It is the big tobacco companies themselves that are creating and marketing these products,” Flanagan said.
According to the CDC, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the U.S. While awareness campaigns led to lowered cigarette smoking rates over the last several decades, since the onset of e-cigarettes, tobacco product use among U.S. youth is increasing.
“The root of the problem is not necessarily e-cigarettes, but the belief that youth using them is not a big deal,” Noriega said. “My peers deserve to live to their full potential.”
For more information, visit pima.gov/health.