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Are we finally done with the myth that vaping is somehow “healthy?” Hundreds now lie in hospitals suffering irreversible lung damage, and every day or so brings word of another death. We are also sowing the seeds of another generation of young adults addicted to nicotine. The teenage smoking rate for cigarettes had dropped to 8% in 2014, before vaping became a real trend among teens, but since that time, vaping of nicotine among teens has doubled year over year, with 1 in 5 teens vaping in the past 30 days. This is the fastest rise in teen substance use seen in decades.
We must take steps now to head off what may be the fastest growing healthcare crisis of our generation. That includes:
- Stop the marketing of vaping devices as a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes. Such claims are unproven.
- Enforce penalties for sale of vaping devices and supplies to those under 18, and consider raising the age to 21. This includes a ban on flavored vapes that increase the appeal of vaping to teens. And raising the legal age to purchase nicotine products to 21 would help keep them out of high schools.
- Teach children, teenagers, and young adults about the dangers of vaping. In our conversations, many teens think they are vaping flavored water. They have no idea their vape contains nicotine.
- Give parents and teachers the tools and information they need to guide their children. The idea that vaping is “no big deal” is dangerously out-of-touch with reality.
- Screen young teenagers for at-risk behaviors. Use of any substance increases the likelihood that a teen will begin using others. Universal screening of teens can catch potential problems early on and help students them healthier ways to cope and manage stress.
While the CDC has yet to determine the underlying cause of the latest rash of vaping-related illnesses, the crisis is proof that vaping is not harmless.
What people vape is not water vapor – it is a complicated mix of oils, glycerin, flavorings and psycho-active substances like nicotine and THC (the active ingredient in marijuana). These are then heated to produce a vapor that is inhaled.
We tell the kids in our education programs that the real danger in vaping is the unknowns. We don’t know what happens when you inhale those substances into your lungs. We don’t know what sort of chemical changes happen as these substances are heated to produce the vapor. We don’t know what is in most of the vaping liquids, as federal regulations don’t require manufacturers to list the ingredients. We don’t even know the concentrations of nicotine or THC that are in the liquids.
And it is true, we really don’t know the long-term consequences of vaping. We’re starting to see the results very quickly of what we didn’t know, indicating these are dangerous products.
Schools are overwhelmed by teen vaping
The trend blew up so quickly, that many schools struggle to update their policies. There’s a ban against smoking in the school, but does that cover vaping? Does a nicotine-free campus mean the school needs to test vaping devices for the presence of nicotine, or should they just ban vaping devices altogether? There are a lot of struggles, and schools don’t feel as well equipped or as knowledgeable as they’d like to be.
There are a range of resources available to schools and parents to deal with these issues. Caron’s Student Assistance Program (SAP) has partnered with schools, families, communities, and other organizations to reach nearly 100,000 students, professionals, and caregivers in more than 800 schools each year.
Caron offers vaping prevention presentations for school faculties and parents that’s quickly become our most requested program, by far. The requests for this presentation come from everywhere, across all regions, all types of schools, all demographics and all cultures.
We also provide schools, healthcare and child-serving professionals with online courses focused on substance use prevention and early intervention in teens. Soon, parents, teens and other specialty groups will also be able to access this digital learning platform. Parents can further educate themselves about substances in general, addiction, healthy boundary setting, communicating with children and building resiliency.
Early screening is key
I’ve written before that schools should explore implementing SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment), a SAMHSA initiative to identify at-risk youth for substance use and mental health issues, for all 9th graders. SBIRT can help identify students who are at-risk and connect them to resources early, rather than waiting until the problem becomes a crisis.
If SBIRT is used for universal screening, schools are more likely to identify students with potential problems that might not be uncovered otherwise. Although SBIRT is useful at all grade levels, 9th grade is a particularly helpful time because the biggest jump in students who have tried substances occurs between 8th and 10th grades. The goal is to catch usage early, before significant issues occur.
These are likely students who aren’t necessarily having academic or behavioral difficulties yet, but are perhaps turning to substances to manage anxiety. Many of these students haven’t had a chance to reflect on their usage, and SBIRT can intervene early and refer them for treatment if needed.
Check out our SBIRT resources for a better understanding of how the program can work. Caron is piloting universal SBIRT screening in four school districts, which you’ll hear more about in a future post.
The rise in teen vaping and the latest rash of vaping-related lung damage and death, no matter what the ultimate cause is determined to be, is worrisome. However, the good news is that we can heed these early warning signs, work together to enact proven prevention and intervention strategies and make vaping a thing of the past.