On the heels of a new report showing an unprecedented spike in the number of teens who use electronic cigarettes, the state’s top health official says it’s a problem that needs immediate attention.
“The report shows us is that there is a sharp increase in the prevalence of nicotine vaping among our young people,” says Dr. Monica Bharel, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health. “E-cigarette use by youth and young adults is really a public health epidemic right now.”
The new data, which comes from the Monitoring the Future Study, shows that across the country, 37 percent of 12th graders, and 32 percent of 10th graders, say they’ve vaped in the last year. Among high school seniors, almost 21 percent have vaped in the last month – that’s up from 11 percent last year.
This year's data represents the largest one-year spike in teenage substance use since the survey began 44 years ago.
“Unfortunately, this is an epidemic that we as adults are just catching up on,” Bharel says. “So we’re really at a starting point right now where it’s really important that all of us become educated.”
According to Bharel’s office, more than 40 percent of high school students and nearly 10 percent of middle school students in the state have tried vaping. And in the last month, 20 percent of high schoolers have used a vaping product.
“Today’s report confirms what our teachers and parents have been saying all year – vaping is an epidemic in our schools,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says in a statement.
“While we focus on prevention education in Massachusetts, our investigation into e-cigarette companies will continue to hold them accountable for marketing these products to children,” she adds.
In July, Healey announced an investigation into whether JUUL Labs and other e-cigarette companies were marketing their products to underage users. Her office also sent cease and desist demands to two online companies she says sell e-cigarette products without a proper age verification system in place.
Also in July, the state Department of Public Health announced The New Look of Nicotine, a statewide anti-vaping campaign aimed at students, parents and school administrators.
Bharel says it’s too soon to tell if the campaign’s posters, flyers and social media messages have resonated or changed behavior.
“When I talk to parents and teachers, some of them aren’t even aware that e-cigarettes contain nicotine, that nicotine can be dangerous to the developing brain, and that children can get addicted to nicotine,” she says.
One person not shocked by the new data is Dr. Swannie Jett, Brookline’s director of health and human services. He says it’s been obvious for years that teen vaping rates are on the rise.
“It’s a cheaper product and people seem to think it’s less harmful, even though it does still contain nicotine,” he says, adding that the industry is “crafty and innovative” in its product designs and marketing.
In his view, combating the problem requires educating parents and cracking down on vendors that sell vaping products to minors.
“We need a stronger campaign to educate parents about vaping” because some e-cigarette devices look like “something you plug into your computer,” he says, and many parents might not even recognize an e-cigarette as a vaping device.
“And we have to become stronger on some of the compliance checks we do at the local level,” he says.
This summer, the state raised the minimum age for purchasing tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21. Jett supports the measure, which goes into effect in January, but says that whether it yields results will depend on how its enforced.