Commentary: We need to act now to thwart youth vaping

By Deborah Brown and Julian Santiago

As the chief mission officer of a nationwide lung health organization and a current high school student in Delaware, we see the alarming impact of electronic cigarettes in our community and with our peers on a daily basis.

Deborah Brown

Nearly 8,000 kids across the country start vaping every day. The need for Delaware to take action to protect our youth from all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, is more urgent than ever as the youth vaping epidemic continues its alarming rise. We must act without delay to ensure that the current generation of kids are the first tobacco-free generation.

Nationally, more than one in five high school students use e-cigarettes, exposing them to harmful chemicals and setting them up for a lifetime of nicotine dependence. In Delaware, 19.4% of high school students reported using tobacco products, according to the American Lung Association’s State of Tobacco Control report; and the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 13.6% of high school students used electronic smoking devices.

Julian Santiago

Research shows that vaping is dangerous, highly addictive and harmful to overall health and may even place a person at greater risk of complications from COVID-19. It’s also considered a gateway to smoking cigarettes, as young people who vape are four times more likely to go on to smoking traditional cigarettes.

We must continue to work closely with youth advocates across Delaware to educate students about current and future use of tobacco products among their peers. It is urgent that we protect this generation and generations to come to empower young people to live tobacco-free, healthy lives and decrease the risk of lung-related diseases that are caused by tobacco use. Together, we must stand up to fight Big Tobacco and stop them from targeting youth as their next generation of addicted tobacco users. Prevention and cessation programs that connect schools, parents and students are key in protecting Delaware youth.

The Delaware Kick Butts Generation — a youth-led program in schools and communities to counter tobacco marketing — stands with the American Lung Association on its recently announced plan to support measures to eliminate tobacco use by youth and to reduce youth e-cigarette use to 15% by 2025. The End the Youth Vaping Epidemic plan utilizes a comprehensive approach of awareness, education, advocacy and research activities. The multifaceted plan includes:

• “Get Your Head Out of the Cloud,” a public awareness campaign in partnership with The Ad Council that equips parents with the facts about e-cigarettes and support conversations before kids start to vape. The campaign includes free educational resources and guides, conversation starters and facts about vaping at TalkAboutVaping.org.

• The Vape-Free Schools Initiative to help school administrators and educators address the surge of youth vaping through guidance in implementing a comprehensive tobacco-use policy and an alternative-to-suspension program for students found noncompliant with existing tobacco-use policies, as well as offering voluntary youth-centered tobacco cessation, including vaping-cessation assistance, for youth wanting to quit tobacco use for good. Participating schools will be recognized as part of the American Lung Association Vape-Free Schools Initiative in their communities and with parents and staff. To be a leader in supporting students with guidance, education and cessation, visit Lung.org/quit-smoking/end-youth-vaping.

• A targeted advocacy plan to advance proven e-cigarette policies at local, state and federal levels, including addressing youth tobacco use by working with legislative champions during the 2021 legislative session to remove all flavored tobacco products from the market. Flavors are a marketing weapon the tobacco manufacturers use to target youth and young people and hook them for a lifetime of addiction. Adding flavors to tobacco products can improve the ease of use of a product by masking the harsh taste of tobacco, facilitating nicotine uptake and increasing a product’s overall appeal. Candy, fruit, mint and menthol flavorings in tobacco products are a promotional tool to lure new, young users, and these products are aggressively marketed with creative campaigns by tobacco companies. Furthermore, youth report flavors are a leading reason they use tobacco products, and they also perceive flavored products as less harmful.

• A $2 million research investment to understand the effects of vaping on developing lungs. The Lung Association is also partnering with Northwestern Medicine in a $25 million National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded grant to study the longitudinal lung health of millennials, including the long-term impact of vaping.

Now is the right time to talk about vaping. The youth e-cigarette epidemic is nothing short of a public health emergency that must be urgently confronted. Lung health is critical, and preventing vaping, or helping kids stop once they’ve started, will set up our kids for healthier bodies and futures. As parents, students, schools and communities, we can work together to end youth tobacco use and protect future generations.

Deborah Brown is chief mission officer for the American Lung Association. Julian Santiago, a junior at Hodgson Vo-Tech High School, is statewide chair of Kick Butts Generation (KBG).