Officials tackle e-cigarette ‘epidemic’ in schools

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Youths and cigarettes are a time-tested relationship that has adjusted over the years to trends in the tobacco industry, from unfiltered and filtered cigarettes to the vapes and electronic cigarettes that dominate the market today.

Data from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services shows the use of electronic cigarettes among the state’s youth has grown in recent years as products such as JUULs become increasingly popular. According to a state announcement last week, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are now the most commonly used tobacco product among Montana youth, with almost half of high school students having tried an e-cigarette and more than 22% currently using one.

In an effort to curb these statistics, officials have embarked on multiple smoking prevention efforts.

Last week, state officials announced the release of a new website, mylifemyquit.com. The online resource was created to help young smokers break their smoking habits in a confidential setting with the help of online coaches and counselors.

“It’s unfortunate that people under 18 have already been exposed to harmful substances like tobacco, but it’s critical we offer every resource possible to help them quit now to avoid a lifelong addiction,” Sheila Hogan, director of Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said in an online statement. “I’m excited this free tool will allow young people to quit confidentially with a plan tailored to their needs.”

Flathead County is no exception to the surge in middle school and high school e-cigarette users.

Malia Morris, a tobacco prevention specialist with the Flathead City-County Health Department, said it is a budding concern among teachers and parents in the valley.

Morris said she visited 47 classrooms from February to May this year to discuss prevention efforts with students. She said the majority of those she presented to fell between sixth and ninth grade.

“There is certainly a growing interest in providing prevention methods for students,” Morris said. “Basically every school has been dealing with this issue. It’s a big problem that’s getting worse.”

Morris used data and pointers from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during her presentation to the students. She said until recently, there hasn’t really been a go-to information resource for e-cigarette prevention because the products are relatively new to the tobacco industry.

Regardless of emerging research, major health-care organizations say nicotine is unsafe for youth and young adults and can harm their developing brains. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine out of 10 adult smokers start before the age of 18 and “youth who start using tobacco products before their brains are fully developed are at a greater risk of addiction.”

The efforts by the state and Flathead County come shortly after the U.S. Surgeon General declared youth e-cigarette use an “epidemic” in December 2018. According to data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey, high school e-cigarette use rose 78% from 2017 to 2018.

Before the epidemic was announced, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services sent out a press release with the headline “JUUL, among other e-cigarettes, is addicting a whole new generation of Montana youth to nicotine.”

The press release highlighted multiple concerns about the popular e-cigarette, including the fact that about 63% of users are unaware the product contains nicotine. JUUL hit the market in 2015 and already dominates most of the e-cigarette market share at about 75%.

“Everyone can do their part to reduce youth initiation of tobacco in Montana,” Hogan said in an online statement.

A research letter from the Centers Disease Control and Prevention said in just one year, JUUL sales increased by 641%, calling the spike in sales a “danger to youth.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@daliyinterlake.com

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