Teen vaping is lit, and so are the risk disparities

Vaping has gained quick popularity among Nevada teens, but there are also inequities regarding which high school students are most at risk. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In 2019, 24 percent of high school students said they had used a vaping product in the past month. That’s a nine percent increase from what the rate was in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The use of vaping products came in second only to alcohol as the most commonly used substance. 

“This is remarkable because alcohol has been around for quite some time but vaping wasn’t even on our radar from a public health perspective ten years ago,” said Jennifer Pearson, a University of Reno, Nevada associate professor who co-authored the 2016 surgeon general’s report on e-cigarette use in youth and young adults. “ It went from zero to second place both nationally and in Nevada.”

In response to “skyrocketing” teen vaping, representatives from Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office and the Southern Nevada Health District, along with state Sen. Julia Ratti recognized January 26 as Vaping Prevention and Awareness Day.

In the early 90’s one in three youths were smoking cigarettes. Now the youth smoking rate has plummetted to 3.6 percent in Nevada, said Kelli Goatley, president of The Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition.

“We’re thrilled to see this level of reduction in youth smoking rates, but recently we’ve seen the use of nicotine vaping products reach rates comparable to those rates of smoking back in the 90’s” said Goatley, during the panel.

E-cigs heat liquid to produce an aerosol that typically contains nicotine, fine particles, and other harmful chemicals. Health officials warn that nicotine can harm the development of young brains, including the parts that control attention, learning and impulse control. Vaping also increases the chances youth will develop other addictions in the future.

Vaping has gained quick popularity among Nevada teens, Pearson said during the panel, but there are also inequities regarding which high school students are most at risk.

High school students with depressive symptoms are at greater risk of use in Nevada, according to data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the CDC. Nearly 32 percent of those with depressive symptoms said they had vaped in the past 30 days compared to 15 percent of students without depressive symptoms.

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students reported vaping in the past 30 days at a rate of 26 percent, compared to 21 percent for heterosexual students. About 38 percent of transgender students said they had vaped in the past 30 days, and nearly 22 percent of cisgender high school students reported doing so. 

Some of the biggest disparities were among rural and urban high students. Nearly 39 percent of rural and frontier high school students reported vaping in the past 30 days compared to about 21 percent of urban students.

In 2019 legislators added e-cigarettes to the Nevada law that prohibits smoking in public spaces. Nevada lawmakers also established a 30 percent tax on the wholesale cost of all vaping products — both vaporizers and e-cigarette liquid — that went into effect last year.

“We know in the prevention world that youth are sensitive to price and by making something more costly youth are less likely to use it,” Goatley said.

Funds raised from those taxes have been used for youth prevention programs throughout the state. However, that funding will end later this year in June, and Goatley warns that fewer resources will be available for prevention programs.

Those resources must also focus on students younger than high school, said Pearson.

In 2019, 3.6 percent of Nevada middle school students used an e-cigarette before age 11. Another 7.5 percent of Nevada high school students used an e-cigarette before age 13. Pearson said that although those percentages may appear insignificant, health officials need to keep in mind that the earlier a child starts using a substance, the greater risk they are at for future negative consequences.

“They are at greater risk of becoming addicted to that substance, they are at greater risk of negative health outcomes, and at greater risk of having negative social outcomes such as problems at school,” Pearson said.

The ease of access to e-cigarettes in the modern market is a cause for concern, said Pearson. Nearly 5 percent of high school students said they had obtained their own vape through the internet in the past 30 days.

“That is essentially people walking into a store and purchasing them with an I.D. that’s not legal or not getting an I.D. checking in the first place,” Pearson said.

Malcolm Ahlo, the tobacco control program coordinator at the Southern Nevada health district, said parents and guardians need to be aware of vaping products to prevent use among teens.

“Many of these products look like regular items that teens use every single day,” Ahlo said.

The most popular devices, known as pods — cartridges that contain flavored nicotine or oils that contain cannabinoids (CBD) — look like pens or flash drives that plug into computers when charging, Ahlo said.

“Preventing kids from using electronic vaping products is our goal,” Ahlo said. “ The first thing is to have this conversation with kids before they start.”

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.