Colorado Youths Vaping at Twice the National Average

Colorado Youths Vaping at Twice the National Average
Ben Moran
The kids are out of control. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Colorado youths vape twice as much as the national average, the highest rate among 37 states surveyed.

Many believe vape products are innocuous, but research has proven that false. When tested, more than 90 percent of these products are shown to contain nicotine, which, in addition to causing cancer, can have a negative effect on adolescent brain development. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, this can leave youths with "lasting cognitive and behavioral impairments, including effects on working memory and attention."

As if that wasn't enough, vape products can also contain some heinous toxins: Clouds of crème brûlée-flavored vapor flowing from JUULs (the most popular vaping device with younger users) may also be infused with decidedly less tasty substances. According to the CDC, the aerosol user's breath from vape devices can contain heavy metals such as nickel; tin and lead; diacetyl, a chemical flavoring linked to serious long disease; and various other cancer-causing chemicals.

Bob Doyle, manager of health promotions for the American Lung Association in Colorado, says tests of vape users' saliva and urine have come back positive for these poisonous chemicals.

Lack of awareness may be the chief cause of Colorado's particularly high figures. While 87 percent of Colorado youth think cigarette smoking is risky, only 50 percent think the same about vaping, as reported by the 2017 edition of the state's Colorado Healthy Kids survey.

Doyle blames the e-cigarette industry. Though products like JUUL may claim to be committed to youth prevention efforts, they're undeniably attractive to young consumers. Flavors often skew sweet and fruity: mango, fruit medley, crème brûlée. The products themselves are high-tech, sleek and discreet, and are often advertised as a cigarette alternative, creating a 'harm-free' implication — despite the fact that a single JUUL pod contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, Doyle says. "We are getting calls from not just high schools, but now middle schools expressing problems with e-cigarettes," he adds.

E-cigarette use is popular across demographics. While black and Asian youths use at a slightly lower rate of 17 percent, use in the categories of Hispanic, white, Pacific Islander, American Indian, multi-racial, heterosexual, gay or lesbian and bisexual all fall between 25 and 33 percent. Transgender youths are a particularly at-risk group, using e-cigarettes at a rate of 44 percent. (Transgender youths use cigarettes more than any other group, too, at a rate of 33 percent.) The second-highest rate, that of Pacific Islanders, is fourteen percentage points lower, at 30 percent.

Alison Reidmohr, tobacco communications specialist for the State of Colorado, says the use rates are the result of long-practice targeted marketing by the tobacco industry. As evidence, she cites an especially repulsive example: Project SCUM, short for "Subculture Urban Marketing." Later renamed "Project Sourdough" by its creator, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (makers of Newport, Camel, Pall Mall and Doral), the project specifically targeted San Francisco homeless and gay populations.

The Truth Initiative, a nonprofit tobacco control organization, reports that the effects of the industry's targeting carry over to this day: "Overall, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults smoke at rates up to 2.5 times higher than straight adults, due in part to targeted marketing by Big Tobacco."

The state is planning a comprehensive attack on youth use: raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21; increasing tobacco taxes to raise product prices (which Reidmohr expects to be especially effective with youths, a highly price-conscious group); encouraging municipalities to add e-cigarettes to their implementations of Colorado's Clean Indoor Air Act, which places restrictions on tobacco smoking but does not include prohibitions on tobacco or marijuana vaping (Denver currently allows vaping in Clean Air areas, Doyle says, though cities such as Fort Collins have banned it); and finally, increasing awareness of vaping's risks through both media outlets and a statewide public education campaign launched by the health department.

The department's campaign focuses on providing parents and other trusted adults (teachers, coaches, counselors, etc.) with the knowledge necessary to have informed conversations with youths about vaping. This, state officials hope, will work to bring the state's use rate closer to the national average. "Fact-based conversations can be very productive, and actually change teens' minds about the risks of vaping," says Larry Wolk, CDPHE executive director and chief medical officer, in a statement accompanying the department's announcement of Colorado's high rating.
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Nick Maahs is an editorial Intern for Westword during summer 2018. Raised in Denver, he attends Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where he tries to escape his small-town blues by studying English and writing for the student-run paper, The Wire.
Contact: Nick Maahs