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By Lauren Gallegos
A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health reports that 67.7% of youth surveyed reported decreasing or quitting e-cigarette use during the COVID-19 pandemic. This promising trend comes only two years after the U.S. Surgeon General declared youth vaping an epidemic.
While the decline in use is a promising trend, nearly one in five high school students used vaping devices in 2020, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. Prevention educators evaluate the factors contributing to these trends to help target prevention education with the hope of helping young people lead healthier lives.
The American Journal of Public Health reported this past January these significant factors in the downward trends: youth fearful of weakened lungs as a result of e-cigarettes (25%); parents learning about vape use (15.2%); and the inability to access e-cigarettes (19.5%).
More than half of young people surveyed in the study reported reduced access to retail environments because of the pandemic. Compared to before the pandemic, young people also reported less sharing of e-cigarettes among social sources than during the pandemic.
Bonnie Halpren-Felsher of Stanford University had similar findings in her team’s study, which found that more than 60% of youth surveyed had either quit or reduced their use of e-cigarettes during the pandemic, reporting high awareness of risk of lung damage.
According to Halpren-Felsher, COVID-19, a respiratory illness, infected youth e-cigarette users five times the rate of their non-using peers. Data from the National Institute of Health’s Monitoring the Future support these findings, and in 2020, reported a higher perceived risk of harm from vaping among youth, as well as a decrease in use of the popular vaping device JUUL.
Increased perception of harm typically indicates a future reduction in use. However, it is important to note that while there has been a decline in reported use, the rates still remain high, and new technologies are continually coming to the market that youth often perceive as less harmful or more novel and exciting.
There is much to be done to support increased prevention efforts that target perceived harm from vaping and increased vigilance to limiting access to e-cigarette products.
While there was a decrease in access through brick-and-mortar stores, some youth reported they could order products online, with more than one quarter of underage users surveyed reporting they did not have to verify their age, were not required an email login or uploading a picture of an ID card.
As the world begins to reopen again and youth spend less time supervised, these declining numbers could rise again.
At federal, state and local levels, policies have sought to reduce youth use of e-cigarettes. The city of Long Beach passed a flavor ban in April 2021, and other cities are considering local ordinances.
At the state level, Senate Bill 793 would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping products. The bill was signed into law last August after it passed the Senate by a 38-0 vote and Assembly by a 58-1 vote.
In an effort to overturn SB 793, a petition veto referendum, an effort largely funded by big tobacco, received enough signatures to qualify for the November 2022 election. Voters should educate themselves on what a yes (maintain the current legislation) and no (overturn the flavor ban) vote will mean when it comes to protecting youth from electronic cigarettes.
Prevention experts suggest parents and teachers educate themselves on the variety of e-cigarettes/vaping products and to discuss these risks with young people.
Raisinghealthyteens.org offers tips for parents and supportive adults to talk to teens about vaping. Most importantly, have frequent open and non-judgmental conversations with youth and remind them that you support and care for them.
You and your teen can also join local efforts to reduce youth substance use with the Wellness & Prevention Coalition, which meets monthly on the second Tuesday of each month. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Lauren Gallegos, ACSW, is the Prevention Director at the Wellness & Prevention Center. You can reach her at email@example.com.