The increased popularity of e-cigarettes has reversed years of progress by educators, parents and doctors to turn young people away from nicotine, local health experts said Monday.
Fewer of middle school and high school age are smoking but use of e-cigarettes – which look like USB drives, are marketed as alternatives to smoking and contain nicotine, the addictive ingredient in tobacco – is rising, health officials said, and the harmful chemicals in the devices can affect heart and brain function.
Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County's health commissioner, called the trend an impending epidemic in a presentation at McMillen Health. She and other doctors who spoke urged state and federal lawmakers to regulate the devices and ban the often sweet flavors that make them attractive to young people.
“I can see the attraction in the design, how it looks, how it feels,” McMahan said. “That's going to be really hard for us to challenge. It's just dangerous. This is going to be a problem for the next 10, 20, 40 years.”
Cigarette use among high school students dropped from nearly 32 percent in 2000 to about 9 percent in 2016, according to statistics from the Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Commission. Among middle school students over the same period, the agency reported the rate dropped from about 7 percent to 5.3 percent.
However, more than 10 percent of eighth-grade students in northeast Indiana surveyed this year by Indiana University researchers reported using “electronic vapor products.” The Indiana Youth Survey compiled by the university's Institute for Research on Addictive Behavior found nearly 13 percent of ninth-graders had used the products and about 18 percent of high school juniors used the products.
The rate dropped slightly to nearly 17 percent among high school seniors in northeast Indiana – defined as Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Huntington, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wells and Whitley counties – according to the survey.
“If we didn't have the darn e-cigarettes come along, we would have been making such great progress,” said Nancy Cripe, executive director of Tobacco Free Allen County.
The warning from local health experts comes after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released a survey showing that more than 3.6 million middle and high school students had used e-cigarettes at least once in a 30-day period in 2018. That is an increase of 1.5 million students over last year, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
“According to the findings, the number of U.S. high school students who reported being current e-cigarette users increased 78 percent between 2017 and 2018 to 3.05 million,” a news release announcing the results of the survey said. “Numbers among middle school students rose 48 percent to 570,000.”
Manufacturers of products such as Juul and VaporFi tout them as cleaner alternatives to cigarettes, but Cripe and others say they still contain nicotine – in sometimes higher doses than would be delivered through smoking.
Andrea Whitaker, a Manchester University pharmacist, said the substance can lead to problems including high blood pressure and can affect a part of the brain responsible for complex behaviors such as planning and personality. Adolescents also are more likely to become addicted, she said.
“The younger they are starting, the higher chance they have for becoming addicted,” Whitaker said.
Federal researchers found the devices are popular because they can be used discreetly – many can be concealed in the palm of a hand – and because of “appealing fruit and candy flavors.”
E-cigarettes shown Monday contained Strawberry Brulee and Cherry Crush flavors.
Tony GiaQuinta, a Fort Wayne pediatrician and president of the Indiana American Academy of Pediatrics, said he has seen an increase in the number of his patients who “vape.”
“There's a little more of a nonchalance with the electronic nicotine delivery systems,” he said. “It's like a toy. They're not getting the message that these are harmful.”