Youth e-cigarette use on the rise on First Coast

E-cigarette use among Florida youth is on the rise, so First Coast News went straight to the source to find out why more kids are using e-cigs and similar products.

Stats show many teenagers who are trying and using e-cigarettes don't understand what they're inhaling.

Every morning, parents send their kids off to school hoping they make good choices.

Healthy choices.

The good news? According to the Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, fewer students are trying or regularly smoking cigarettes than in the past.

But e-cigarette use is skyrocketing.

In 2012, just 6.9 percent of St. Johns County youth aged 11-17 had tried vaping. In 2016, that jumped to 24.1 percent. For county-by-county results of the 2016 Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, head to the bottom of this page.

To find out why e-cigarettes are so popular among middle and high school students, First Coast News spoke with groups at Sebastian Middle School and Creekside High School in St. Johns County.

The students at Sebastian Middle School were between 12 and 14 years old. All were members of an anti-tobacco club and claim to have never tried an e-cigarette.

But most know people who have.

“20 and up,” 13-year-old D’oni said of how many people she knows who use e-cigarettes.“I can’t count the exact number but I know it’s more than 20.”

“And they’re all around your age?” First Coast News reporter Juliette Dryer asked.

“Yes,” D’oni said. “The youngest is probably 11.”

“I don’t think it’s unusual when you say they know people that are 11 years old using tobacco and nicotine products because the average age of addiction to nicotine is 12 years old,” Mary Ann Steinberg with Tobacco Free St. Johns said. Steinberg helped facilitate the discussions.

“It’s the nicotine that’s addictive,” she said. “And especially with youth, it really doesn’t take a lot to addict the young brain.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 66 percent of teens think e-cigarettes only contain flavoring.

“Just knowing that it has nicotine is a reason to avoid it,” Dr. Tolulope Adeyemo, a family practitioner with Baptist Primary Care, said.

Dr. Adeyemo said in youth, the brain is still developing so nicotine could impact personality traits, impulse control, and decision making.

“Nicotine acts as a euphoric agent and so it may tell the patient that they need more,” he said. “And so now they’re seeking more products that have nicotine in there.”

Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse back up his concerns, showing 30.7 percent of teen e-cig users started smoking within six months.

“It’s just a common thing right now. It’s -- everybody’s trying it so now everybody else,” 12-year-old Liam said.

As common as it may seem in middle school, e-cigarettes and vaping are becoming even more popular among high school students.

“I’d say I know, like, 10 of my friends who kind of just carry it around with them all the time,” JT, a 17-year-old senior at Creekside, said.

“People just do it because they think it’s cool,” Alyssa, 17, said.

“And it’s easy to get, too. A lot of people just ask older friends,” Calea, a 15-year-old sophomore said.

Florida law prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes and similar products to people under 18. But the students from Creekside said they’re easy to get.

“I could walk around the school right now and tell someone to go get me this, and give them money for it, and they could go right after school,” JT said.

The students said vaping seemed like a game to some of their peers; they post videos on social media boasting about inhaling the longest or blowing the coolest shapes.

“People like to do it in their cars, like ‘watch me vape! Look at big cloud of smoke I can blow!’ It’s ‘cool,’” Alyssa said.

All of the students agreed that e-cigarette use seemed to increase from freshman year to senior year.

When asked what percentage of the senior class regularly used e-cigarettes, one student replied 40-45 percent.

Asked how many had ever tried e-cigarettes, the numbers were much higher.

But traditional cigarettes? Many didn’t know anyone.

The teens said that’s likely because of exposure to anti-smoking campaigns and talks with parents or other adults about the dangerous smoking. They said they haven’t had the same exposure to information about e-cigarettes.

“There’s not really anything out there depicting e-cigarettes as being harmful, or anything,” JT said. “And then you turn around and see all the cigarette advertising, anti-cigarette advertising, as being something really bad for you. But you don’t see anything for e-cigarettes or vaping.”

“You see the commercials of people, like, pulling their teeth out or something and giving it to the gas station dude to get cigarettes,” 17-year-old Dustin said. “But you don’t see -- the e-cigarettes you don’t see them, like, pulling out teeth or a fingernail or whatever they do.”

In response to the growing popularity of e-cigarettes and similar products, in mid-October, the FDA began its first initiative to explicitly address e-cigarette use in youth. The first phase of the expanded public education campaign includes digital content while a full-scale campaign will launch in 2018.

Full report 

2016 FYTS State and County Data (Full)

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