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Combat e-cig use now, before it becomes the next drug crisis

By KATHY MILES

Boyle ASAP

“We didn’t see this coming.” This is a statement that’s been made over and over again about America’s opioid addiction crisis.

It’s found in books that chronicle the spread of the use of painkillers and heroin. Health care and law enforcement experts have acknowledged this, and even some of the best addiction specialists in the country have admitted a failure to recognize significant warning signs.

It’s easier to understand now that we look back on the complicated and interrelated contributing factors. But most everyone agrees that our country mishandled and ignored for too long increasing illegal and legal drug problems that resulted in a train wreck of untimely deaths, skyrocketing law enforcement and health care costs, damaged families and an overloaded criminal justice system.

We have to do a better job of getting ahead of escalating problems. National and state officials have to analyze data more effectively and with improved timeliness. Solid research on addiction and mental health must not be ignored, and it must be communicated to key decision makers in such a way that is useful and applicable to policy and budget decisions. Parents, teachers, coaches and religious leaders deserve to have information about how best to provide guidance and support to prevent substance use disorders. All community members need to know concerning trends and escalating problems.

There is a trend among our youth that is beginning to draw national, state and local attention. The use of e-cigarettes by youth, otherwise known as “vaping” or “Juuling” (named after the leading manufacturer), has increased at an alarming rate in the past several months.

A recent national survey stated that U.S. high school students reported a 78-percent increase in their use of e-cigarettes just since 2017. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams warned in a December press release that teen use is rising at an epidemic rate, and that with e-cigarettes, we risk losing all of the gains that have been made in recent years in preventing tobacco use.

The Lexington Herald-Leader recently reported on the use of e-cigarettes by Fayette County youth, and quoted the principal of one large Lexington public high school as saying that probably at least half of that student body is using e-cigarettes. Other Lexington high schools are reporting problems related to vaping by students at school. Social media has helped to spread the problem, particularly through the posts of inaccurate information, which downplays the health risks.

To get ahead of this new potential train wreck, correct information must be available to youth and their families. That information should include the fact that “nicotine is nicotine,” regardless of the delivery method used. Nicotine is extra risky for youth to use because their brains are still developing. As is true for alcohol and drugs, the developing brain is more susceptible to the effects of a substance than an adult’s brain. Nicotine use in youth has been shown to negatively affect learning, attention span and memory. And, although not yet completely understood, early use of nicotine may predispose a person for future addiction to a variety of substances, not just tobacco.

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Kentucky Youth Advocates are two respected Kentucky organizations leading the campaign to address this problem now. They recommend that e-cigarettes be included in all smoke-free ordinances and tobacco-free school policies, and that a state tax on e-cigarettes be equal to the tax rate on traditional cigarettes. Terry Brooks, Kentucky Youth Advocates’ executive director, expressed the urgency in the December news release:  “And, unless we as a commonwealth treat e-cigs as the health threat it is — in terms of now and in the future — then in 2038, Kentucky will still be the cancer capital of the nation”. 

So, there it is — another train that has started down a track that could be a wreck in a just a few years. We’ve been warned.

It would be hard to ignore this information, given what our state has seen and continues to experience related to tobacco use and health care costs. It would be foolish to do nothing given our recent state health ranking of 45th in the nation. There are public policy decisions to be made, and family and school discussions to be held.

Tobacco companies spend $9.5 billion per year on marketing. We can let those expenditures be the conductor of this train and just wait for the next crisis. Or, we can do what we didn’t do well with the opioid crisis — heed the warnings and enact strategies to reverse current trends. As 2019 begins, our kids deserve to be supported on a track to a healthier future.

Kathy L. Miles is coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy Inc..