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High school students smoking less, vaping more

A significant increase in vaping by high school students has all but negated the dramatic decrease in their use of smoking and chewing tobacco. (Photo illustration by Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Teens have largely gotten the message about the dangers of smoking and pitched their Camels and Kools. But now, many are vaping, negating the gains the anti-tobacco forces hoped to see in New Mexico’s high schools.

The overall use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, among young people has increased by 23% since 2009, with more than one-third of high school students, 37.8% using some form of tobacco.

That’s according to the just released New Mexico Department of Health 2019 Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, a joint project of DOH and the state Public Education Department.

The survey is done once every two years. This most recent survey preceded a new state law passed earlier this year to prohibit sales of all tobacco products to anyone under age 21, said Dan Green, DOH survey epidemiologist.

From 2015 to 2019, the first years the survey compiled statistics on youth e-cigarette smoking, the overall use of these products increased by nearly 42%, Green said.

All other tobacco product usage declined.

From 2011, when the DOH began tracking hookahs, also called water pipes, through 2019, their usage among youth declined by 59%.

From 2009 to 2019, cigarette smoking among youths decreased by 63%, cigar smoking among youths decreased by 54%, and chewing tobacco use declined by 50%, Green said.

What that means is the gains achieved by getting young people to turn away from smoking and chewing tobacco, were negated by the rising use of e-cigarette and vaping products, Green said.

Despite the perception among young people that vaping is not harmful, James Padilla, a DOH tobacco epidemiologist, said it is a dangerous practice.

“We worry about nicotine addiction, because many of the e-cigarette and vaping products do contain nicotine, even when people think they don’t,” he said.

Padilla said one pod, which contains the vape juice, from one popular e-cigarette brand contains as much nicotine as one pack of regular cigarettes.

“Nicotine is dangerous to pregnant women and fetuses, and young people with developing brains,” he said. “So this is an important time when you don’t want kids and young adults exposed to nicotine.”

Further, there is the concern that a young person who vapes will become a lifelong user of nicotine products, Padilla said. “And there is evidence of kids using e-cigarettes as a replacement for other tobacco products,” although he conceded many young people abandoned more traditional tobacco products for e-cigarettes, thinking it was a healthier choice.

Part of the reason young people have been receptive to anti-smoking messages and less so to warnings about e-cigarettes is “we have decades of telling people smoking is bad for you, but e-cigs have just popped up in the last 8 to 10 years,” Padilla said.

“Kids today are growing up at a time when they don’t even see regular cigarette smoking a whole lot,” Padilla said.

Vaping e-cigarette products is attractive to them in part because of the multitude of flavors offered, and because the vaping devices have a “techie” look and feel to them,” Padilla said. “They perceive vaping as much less harmful.”

Looking at other risky behaviors, the survey found that over the past decade, drinking alcohol before age 13 decreased by 30%; binge drinking fell by 52%; lifetime use of heroin decreased by 36%; lifetime use of methamphetamine decreased by 33%; and fighting on school property decreased by 38%.

On the other side of the ledger, the non-schoolwork use of media for three or more hours daily increased by 105%; and skipping school because of safety concerns increased by 93%.

What the survey results indicate, Green said, is that “kids who have strong connections to their school, good relationships with their parents, teachers, peers and other people in the community who care about them, are much less likely to be engaging in any of the risk factors across the board.”

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