Fewer Ky. teens smoke, but the rate is still high, and new vaping products like the Juul create worry that this trend will reverse

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Kentucky’s high-school students continue to smoke at higher rates than their national counterparts, but the good news is that their rates continue to drop. The bad news: An influx of new vaping products could reverse this downward trend.

2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey


The recently released 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 14.3 percent of Kentucky high-school students reported smoking cigarettes; 14.1 percent said they smoked e-cigarettes, 10.6 percent used smokeless tobacco; 11 percent smoked cigars; and 26 percent of those who reported using tobacco products use more than one product.

All of these numbers are “significantly higher” than the national averages for the same measures, which Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky President and CEO Ben Chandler says is a real problem, because most adult smoking habits are “hard-wired” by the age 18 — and Kentucky has the second highest adult smoking rate in the nation, 26 percent.

“The cigarette smoking rate for Kentucky high schoolers remains 62 percent above the national average, and nearly twice as many use smokeless tobacco. A third more Kentucky youth are dual users, which exacerbates their exposure to nicotine and the damage tobacco use does to their developing brains,” Chandler said in a news release.

Chandler commended the state’s efforts to keep young people from smoking, but cautioned that Kentucky’s progress is slower than other states.

“We have proven measures to ensure the trend in youth tobacco use continues downward, but we have to have the courage to enact them and the common sense to fund them,” he said. “We need smoke-free laws, higher tobacco taxes, including taxes on new tobacco products, and more youth tobacco prevention funding.”

A look at some of the state’s most recent anti-smoking efforts shows there is room to do more to protect children from smoking:

  • Only 70 of the state’s 173 school districts have adopted tobacco-free school policies and only 49 of those have included electronic cigarettes in their policies, Elizabeth Anderson-Hoagland, youth tobacco-policy specialist with the state health department, told Kentucky Health News.
  • Bills to require school properties and school events to be tobacco-free were introduced but not called up in the legislature’s education committees this year. The Senate passed a similar bill last year, but the House didn’t take it up. A recent Kentucky Health Issues Poll found that 87 percent of Kentucky adults support such a law, and the poll has shown consistent support for such policies since 2013.
  • A strong lobbying effort by the Coalition for a Smoke-free Coalitionto get lawmakers to raise the cigarette tax by $1, to $1.60 per pack, failed. The coalition, chaired by Chandler and staffed by the foundation, said among other health benefits, such a hike would have kept more than 23,000 Kentucky teens from ever smoking and would have resulted in over 29,000 adults quitting. The tax was raised 50 cents, to $1.10, but Chandler said tobacco companies will be able to ease its impact with coupons and discounts.
  • Though 71 percent of Kentucky adults support a statewide smoking ban, the last bill to get any traction on this issue was introduced in 2015, when the House passed a ban that was not called up in the Senate. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who took office in December 2015, has said this should be a local decision, so it’s not likely such a bill would pass while he is in office. Only 35 percent of Kentuckians are protected from exposure to secondhand smoke by local smoke-free ordinances, according to the Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy.

On top of all of that, Chandler said he worries that teens’ use of electronic cigarettes will undermine all the progress the state has made. About 45 percent of the state’s high school students in the survey said they had ever tried an electronic vapor product.

“And the explosion in teen popularity of new e-cigarette products threatens to undermine all the progress we’ve made by hooking teens on nicotine products that are proven gateways to smoking,” Chandler said. “How sad it would be if we ended up back where we were a generation ago!”

One such product is the Juul device, a highly popular vaping tool that packs a powerful nicotine punch, with dozens of flavors that attract teens. And because it is small and looks like a USB drive, they are easy to hide them from parents and teachers.

The sale of these products to minors has become such a problem that the Food and Drug Administration conducted a nationwide undercover “blitz” to crack down on their sales. “They are a huge problem in the schools because they are so easy to conceal,” Hoagland said. “Teens themselves are saying they are a problem, as well as administrators.”

Chandler concluded, “Tobacco-related illness already costs the commonwealth 8,900 lives and $1.92 billion a year in health care expenditures. And even with the progress we’ve made, 119,000 kids currently under age 18 will die prematurely from smoking. That’s nearly a thousand kids per county in Kentucky!”

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