It can taste and smell like cotton candy, but its potential negative impacts to young minds are why officials find the newest student survey results alarming.
Approximately one third of Island County 12th graders have used vape pens or e-cigarettes, according to the 2018 Healthy Youth Survey results. Students across the state reported similar increases.
Approximately 33 percent of high school seniors and 23 percent of sophomores in Island County reported vaping in the past 30 days, the recently released results show.
These numbers are a spike from the last survey, completed in 2016. In the previous survey 14 and 18 percent of sophomores and seniors respectively reported having used an e-cigarette in the prior month.
The most recent results indicate only 28 percent of 12th graders perceived a “great risk of harm” from using e-cigarettes or vape pens regularly. Sophomores and eighth graders reported seeing a risk at slightly higher rates but still under 40 percent.
The fact that many young people don’t see the potential harm of vaping is particularly concerning to Island County Public Health Director Keith Higman.
Most of the devices contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control in developing brains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
E-cigarettes and similar devices can also contain other harmful chemicals, according to the agency. E-cigarettes heat nicotine extracted from tobacco with flavorings and other chemicals to create a water vapor that users inhale.
Tara Hizon, community coordinator for the Oak Harbor Youth Coalition, said she’s most worried by results that show many students don’t realize the products have addictive substances in them.
“It’s scary when teenagers think that they’re using a device that’s safe while unwillingly and unwittingly becoming addicted to nicotine,” Hizon said.
However, regular cigarette use seems to be on the decline in the county and state. Less than 10 percent of 12th and 10th graders reported smoking a cigarette in the past month, which is slightly lower than 2016’s results.
Reported marijuana and alcohol use remained about the same.
Higman said the county public health department has limited funding for anti-drug educational materials and classes. There also isn’t as much evidence that can be pointed to in order to convince young people of the harmful effects of vaping.
“Outreach is pretty limited to the schools and school promotional activities that discourage those kinds of behaviors,” Higman said.
Teen vaping is a growing concern across the nation. The Food and Drug Administration announced in November plans to ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes in an attempt to reduce their popularity among teenagers.
Hizon said it’s frustrating how unregulated the products are and how little information is known about them.
“We’ve made so much progress on the smoking front,” she said, “but we might be raising a whole new generation of smokers.”