Concerned about the rise of vaping among North Carolina teenagers and younger kids, some adults in Durham are fighting back.
E-cigarette use among high schoolers in this state increased 894 percent between 2011 and 2017, according to the North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey. Among middle schoolers statewide, vaping jumped 430 percent during the same period.
“Since this is a viable product and available to everyone, we want to make sure that [kids] get this data before it is too late,” said Elvert Dorsey, chairman of the council, which promotes health among Durham men, especially black and Latino men.
Organizers handed out pamphlets, including one advising parents to remain nonjudgmental and honest when discussing e-cigarettes and to set a good example by neither smoking or vaping.
“It’s important for parents to introduce this information to their kids, even if their kid is not directly involved in this activity, because they surely know someone who is,” Dorsey told council members and parents at the Durham Human Services Building.
Duke University pulmonologist Loretta Que urged everyone concerned about the health of young people to embrace the precautionary principle when it comes to e-cigarettes. That public health practice says when something may be harmful, steps should be taken to reduce exposure to the potential threat.
That’s true even when science hasn’t firmly established cause and effect.
“As of Nov. 13, 2019, there have been 2,172 cases of vaping related lung injuries and 42 related deaths in 24 states … the lungs look like they have been burned in these patients that died,” Que said in a presentation. “Since substance causing these lung injuries is not known for sure yet, you should not start to vape or use an e-cigarette.”
Michael Scott, program manager of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, discussed how the tobacco industry has a long history of targeting young people with advertising designed to make smoking look alluring. Specifically, big tobacco companies targeted young teens in order to gain life-long users, by hooking them on addictive nicotine.
E-cigarette vendors have used using similar tactics, he said. Four out of five middle and high school students saw e-cigarette ads in 2106, in stores, on social media and in newspapers and magazines, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.
JUUL for example, has used magazine ads, Instagram ads and sponsored events such as the “Music in Film Summit” at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Utah to burnish its image with young consumers. Multiple states have sued JUUL, which recently changed its practices, for targeting young people with deceptive marketing.
“Big tobacco and vape companies have to continue to recruit new customers as kids, and we want to prevent that,” Scott said.
Scott said African Americans and members of LGBTQ+ community can also targeted by e-cigarette companies.
“African Americans, people of low socioeconomic status, LGBT folks, Latino folks… those are the people disproportionately affected by smoking… and now vaping,” he said.
Durham has fairly progressive laws against smoking tobacco. Durham’s Board of Health in 2012 banned smoking in many outdoor public spaces, and a few indoor spaces such as public restrooms. Scott favors vaping bans too.
“Vaping is less dangerous than smoking, but it still has its significant dangers,” Scott said. “Any anti-smoking laws need to include e-products and vaping products.”
But parents and all adults in the community can help now, Scott and Que said. Their number-one weapon for good in this domain? Education.
“Be educated about the products that you see; be aware that these products exist, because your kids are seeing them in school and on social media. Secondly, be supportive of policies that are going to be put in place that will prevent this, such as banning menthol, banning flavors, banning e-cigarettes in general,” said Scott.
The best way to address this issue with teens is through nurturing, said Wanda Boone, executive director of Together for Resilient Youth, an organization trying to reduce substance abuse in Durham. Suspensions, expulsions and other forms of punishment in school and outside is not the right answer, she said.
“Holding young people totally accountable for smoking and vaping is like holding fish responsible for dying in a polluted stream,” Boone said. “Our responsibility is to protect them from this environment so that they have the opportunity to grow.
In that spirit, the men’s health council plans to hold more events on vaping at local schools to further spread the word on their risks.