The number of teenagers using e-cigarettes is increasing throughout Pennsylvania, causing the state Department of Health (DOH) to launch a new campaign aimed at helping parents prevent children from vaping.

Most e-cigarettes, also known as e-cigs, e-hookahs, mods, vape pens, vapes or electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), contain nicotine, which is addictive and can hurt adolescent brain development, the health department reports.

“Parents need to be aware that these products are not a safe alternative to smoking for their children,” Health Secretary Dr. Levine said. “We are launching a new multimedia campaign aimed at helping parents begin the conversation about vaping with their children. It is so important to talk to your kids to let them know that vaping is dangerous for them and their future health.”

Erica Usher, prevention supervisor with Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission said teen use of e-cigarettes has also been on the rise locally as well.

The tricky part with the vaping products is that while there is the nicotine pods available for vaping, there are also pods that are just flavoring, which teens tend to gravitate towards.

But Lorraine Yasenosky, a prevention specialist with the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission said there is a chance that even those could be harmful, with reports that there could be metals in the particulates that are being inhaled.

“We all know that traditional tobacco use can affect your health because it has been around for decades, and multiple studies have been done linking traditional tobacco use with lung cancer and throat cancer,” said Usher. “But the problem with e-cigarettes is that we don’t have any long-term data as of yet for vapes to show conclusively that scary bad things happen.”

But whether the vapes are delivering nicotine or just flavored vapors, Usher said none of it is good.

“We know that the only thing that our lungs need to function correctly is air, and any time we’re inhaling something other than that long-term, there could be a problem,” she said. “That’s why painters wear masks when they’re painting and other professions do the same. We all need to be alert to the fact that maybe it’s not as safe as one might think it is.”

Usher said that e-cigarette manufacturers have promoted their product as a cessation aid, or a way to help those smoking or using traditional tobacco products to quit those products.

“Used as a cessation aid, e-cigarette manufacturers claim that their products help smokers quit smoking the traditional product, and research has shown this to be the case,” Usher said. “The idea to use something to ween yourself down from using regular cigarettes makes sense, whether it be these e-cigarettes or a nicotine patch.

“The problem is that these cessation aids aren’t meant to be used for the rest of your life,” she added.

The state’s Department of Health said in a recent report that e-cigarettes are not safe for youth, young adults, pregnant women or adults who do not currently use tobacco products.

“E-cigarette aerosol is not harmless ‘water vapor,’ it read. “It can contain harmful and potentially harmful substances, including: nicotine and ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs; flavoring such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds; cancer-causing chemicals and heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead.”

“We only have one brain, and our brains continue to develop until we are about 25 years old,” Dr. Rachel Levine said. “Nicotine found in e-cigarettes can harm adolescent brain development and decrease respiratory health, and those who use e-cigarettes may be more likely to use other tobacco products or become addicted to nicotine. More studies are showing that even the flavorings in e-cigarettes that claim to be nicotine-free are having impacts on the heart, lung and brain.”

A report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) said America’s teens report a dramatic increase in their use of vaping devices in one year, with 37.3 percent of 12th graders reporting “any vaping” in 2018, compared to just 27.8 percent in 2017.

These findings come from the 2018 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of a nationally representative sample of eighth, 10th and 12th graders in schools nationwide, funded by a government grant to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Reported use of vaping nicotine specifically in the 30 days prior to the survey nearly doubled among high school seniors from 11 percent in 2017 to 20.9 percent in 2018.

More than one in 10 eighth graders (10.9 percent) say they vaped nicotine in 2018 and use is up significantly in virtually all vaping measures among eighth, 10th and 12th graders. Reports of past year marijuana vaping also increased in 2018 at 13.1 percent for 12th graders, up from 9.5 percent in 2017.

“Teens are clearly attracted to the marketable technology and flavorings seen in vaping devices; however, it is urgent that teens understand the possible effects of vaping on overall health; the development of the teen brain; and the potential for addiction,” said Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of NIDA in the recent report. “Research tells us that teens who vape may be at risk for transitioning to regular cigarettes, so while we have celebrated our success in lowering their rates of tobacco use in recent years, we must continue aggressive educational efforts on all products containing nicotine.”

The percent of 12th graders who say they vaped “just flavoring” in the past year also increased to 25.7 percent in 2018 from 20.6 percent in 2017. However, it is unclear if teens know what is in the vaping devices they are using, since the most popular devices do not have nicotine-free options, and some labeling has been shown to be inaccurate. There was also a significant jump in perceived availability of vaping devices and liquids in eighth and 10th graders, with 45.7 percent and 66.6 percent, respectively, saying the devices are “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get.

Dr. Krista Boyer, a psychologist with Connellsville Counseling Services, said that the concerns with the excessive use of e-cigarettes by teenagers from her standpoint has to do with addiction.

“We do have an addiction epidemic (with drugs) right now and vaping is priming brains for addiction,” she said. “Data shows that 25 percent of teens who use e-cigarettes will progress to smoking marijuana, which is also a gateway drug, so it starts a domino effect.”

Also, Boyer said this generation of teenagers are drawn to anything tech-saavy and some e-cigarette devices look like electronics.

“The novelty of them draws teens in, and some of my clientelle has really gotten into all of the flavors,” she said. “It’s like a new kind of candy store.”

Usher said that the manufacturers of e-cigarettes insist they are not marketing to teenagers, but their marketing strategy that includes flavors, “skins” for their devices and a high social media presence, tends to show otherwise.

In a report by the State Epidemiological Outcome Workgroup (SEOW), one in six Instagram posts in Pennsylvania with vaping-related content mentioned flavors and one in 176 posts mentioned nicotine.

They added in the report that many youth are unaware that most vaping products contain nicotine.

“Not only teens, but parents, believe that vaping products are safe and preferential to use as opposed to traditional tobacco products, so they’ll purchase them for their child,” Usher said. “They’re not concerned because they don’t know they should be concerned.

“Using e-cigarettes is not safe - it’s a line that people are being fed,” she added. “Safer does not mean safe. There could be any number of long-term health problems that we just don’t know about yet.”

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