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Generation of children lost in cloud of vapor

Viewpoint

As a doctor, I’ve watched with growing concern the proliferation of e-cigarettes on Maui. Early on, these devices were portrayed by e-cigarette and tobacco companies as an option for smoking cessation, a safer substitute for smokers who wished to continue smoking but without the dangerous carcinogens of traditional cigarettes.

As years passed and e-cigarettes became more sophisticated, vaping became the descriptor for the act of inhaling a vaporized solution that provides the sensation of inhaling tobacco smoke, but without the smoke.

Research studies have only recently begun to confirm the fundamental risks posed by vaping that were largely unknown or unproven during the early years. What we know so far is that those risks are considerable. Most alarming of all is that it is our youth — some as young as 11 — who are most susceptible.

The high rates of vaping among middle school children on Maui is alarming. More than 18 percent say they vaped in the last 30 days. That’s nearly one in every five middle school kids. The percentage of Maui high schoolers who have vaped is even higher — more than 36 percent — with female students vaping at higher rates than their male counterparts. Maui has the highest percentage of any island.

According to the 2019 Department of Health Hawaii Youth Risk Behavior Survey, youth vaping in Hawai’i has risen since 2015. Nearly 8 percent of high schoolers vape daily. The survey is conducted every two years, and I suspect the upward trajectory will continue unless we find the will to intervene.

The vast majority of kids who vape — 83 percent — use flavored products that are often candy flavored, with innocuous names such as Vanilla Cupcake and Icy Mango. But these e-cigarettes aren’t benign as their names suggest. For starters, they’re highly addictive. Many e-cigarettes have more nicotine than a pack of cigarettes, and we know that nicotine has lasting damaging effects on adolescent brain development, particularly on the areas of the brain responsible for attention, learning, mood and impulse control.

Legislation was previously proposed to ban flavored tobacco and nicotine products. Maui Sen. Rosalyn Baker championed that legislation and deserves credit for shepherding it as far as it went. But the legislation never made it into law.

By letting these products stay on the market, we have allowed e-cigarettes to invade our schools and disrupt our children’s learning environment. We have kids asking to be excused from class to use the bathroom to take a vape break, or even attempting a quick hit in class. The vaping industry helps them out by disguising e-cigarettes as USB thumb drives, highlighters and even a wristwatch so they can be used unobtrusively.

It saddens me to think that one day I may be treating some of these kids for lung ailments associated with vaping.

So much potential suffering can be avoided if we can only muster the courage to act on the fact that flavors and nicotine are what attracts and hooks kids on vaping. A ban on these flavored products – including menthol tobacco products – is the surest way to help them kick the habit.

It’s not too late to salvage a generation of kids before it’s lost in a cloud of vapor.

* Dr. Jeffrey H. Chester, D.O., has been treating on Maui for 20 years, and is currently the medical and clinical director at Akamai Recovery Maui.

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