In 2017, Eau Claire County’s high school-age youth used e-cigarette products at nearly double the rate of the state of Wisconsin, according to the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.
Lil Piñero, the department’s community health educator and facilitator for Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, said the county sent a Youth Risk Behavior Survey to students in November 2017. In a question about using e-cigarettes, 23.4 percent of high school students said they had used the product in the last 30 days. The state’s result of the same population was 11.6 percent.
What’s more alarming, Piñero said those numbers also increased from a similar 2015 PRIDE survey that was sent out to high school students. That number was 12.7 percent.
“We have a serious issue in Eau Claire County in particular in terms of e-cigarette use and its appeal and attractiveness to our youth,” Piñero said. “For me, what that says in my field is we have some work to do here in prevention.”
But the county isn’t alone. On Wednesday U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced new steps to address what he calls an “epidemic of youth e-cigarette use,” according to the statement.
Gottlieb acknowledged there is not as much information available on the effects of e-cigarettes but said such products “may still pose health risks, including possibly releasing some chemicals at higher levels than conventional cigarettes.”
The FDA will tighten regulations on selling and marketing these products, especially toward kids, as well as revisit manufacturing compliance policies. It also will continue to crack down on the illegal sales of the products toward minors and send warning letters to manufacturers and retailers of the products.
Part of what attracts youth to the products is the marketing, especially of the popular e-cigarette brand JUUL, Piñero thinks. They are sleek, attractive and can be “dressed up” in a variety of designs, much like cellphone cases. While pretty, she said each of those pods contains highly concentrated levels of nicotine, and one is about equal to a pack of cigarettes.
She thinks tightening those regulations will be helpful, but, after nine years working in the prevention field, she is concerned about what has already happened.
“The damage might have been done already to a certain population of these kids who fell into trying it,” she said. “But what we’re trying to do now is putting forth prevention efforts to make sure we don’t add to that.”
Kia Dassow, who manages Azara Vape’s location at 624 Water St., said she has had two customers ask her about the new FDA regulations.
While she hadn’t yet had a chance to closely read the statement, Dassow said her gut reaction is that it’s “kind of ridiculous.”
“I just feel like it’s under so much scrutiny, probably just because it’s a new thing,” Dassow said. “There are other things that are much worse than e-cigarettes.”
She said Azara Vape works diligently not to sell its products to minors but thinks the products themselves are not a problem. She did acknowledge there is not as much available information on e-cigarettes’ effects on people.
Dassow said Azara Vape has not received any FDA communication to her knowledge but said they would “absolutely” comply to new retailer regulations if it came to that. She said she believes as long as people are 18 and older, the branding and marketing of e-cigarettes shouldn’t be so closely scrutinized.
“Obviously there are risks associated with anything you do, but that’s the point, you get to choose which risks you take,” she said.
The FDA more than a year ago promoted the use of e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to cigarettes for adults. The e-cigarette does not burn tobacco, which releases harmful chemicals into the air and lungs, as cigarettes do. However, Gottlieb said they didn’t realize at the time the boom in popularity would affect youth.
Piñero said Eau Claire County works with Wisconsin Wins, an initiative that hopes to decrease youth’s access to tobacco products, for funding to do tobacco compliance checks. She is hoping in the future to expand checks to include e-cigarettes. Another solution starts at a smaller, more personal level.
“That would be one area to combat easy retail access to youth,” she said. “Another piece, though, is that we tell parents to talk to their children about their expectations around nicotine use, about the misconceptions about e-cigarettes versus tobacco and explain the health effects.”
Contact: 715-833-9214, email@example.com, @KatherineMacek on Twitter