Kentucky teens’ use of electronic cigarettes and vapes doubled from 2016 to 2018, and is higher than national rates, survey finds

By Melissa Patrick and Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

A survey of Kentucky teenagers shows that their rate of using electronic cigarettes and vapes doubled from 2016 to 2018, and all four grades surveyed had rates higher than the national rates.

When Kentucky high-school seniors were asked if they had used e-cigarettes or vapes in the past 30 days, 26.7% said they had. That was more than double the 12.2% rate found by the 2016 survey.

Use by sophomores, or 10th graders, increased to 23.2% from 11.3%; researchers consider the 10th-grade figures to be the better indicator for use by high-school students. Use by eighth graders jumped to 14.2% from 7.3%, and sixth-grader use increased to 4.2% from 2.3% over 2016.

The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, which uses slightly different wording, found that 21 percent of students in high school and nearly 5 percent in middle school reported using e-cigarettes and vapes. (Those numbers represented increases of 78 percent 48 percent, respectively, in high-school and middle-school use, from 2017.)

The Kentucky Incentives for Prevention survey is taken every two years. In 2018 it was taken by more than 159,000 students in 151 of the state’s 173 public-school districts. For the first time, it included Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, but still did not include Fayette County, Hardin County, Warren County, Bowling Green and 18 other districts.

“This unprecedented two-year surge in Kentucky youth vaping and e-cigarette use underscores the urgency of our efforts to warn kids and the adults in their lives about the dangers of these tobacco products for youth,” said Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

“E-cigarettes and vapes are chock-full of nicotine that can cause both immediate and permanent brain damage to youth. They prime the developing brain for addictions to other substances. They can cause cancer and lung damage. And they have been known to explode and cause poisoning among very young kids,” Chandler said.

“We urge every Kentucky school district that doesn’t already have a tobacco-free campus policy to expedite their plans to comply with the new tobacco-free schools bill. We also urge parents, teachers and other adults to talk to kids about e-cigs and help them understand that they are absolutely not safe for kids or young adults.”

On April 22, the foundation released public-service announcements and other free resources about youth e-cigarette use. The “I Just Didn’t Know” campaign features Kentucky youth sharing with their peers what they’ve learned about the dangers of e-cigarettes. The PSAs are available on YouTube and are accompanied by a website and an Instagram page.

The survey was released April 25 by the Substance Abuse Prevention Program in Kentucky’s Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities. A report by region, based on 10th graders, is to be released in early summer.

The survey primarily assesses alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, but also looks at suicide and other high risk behaviors.

It showed continued declines in use of several substances, including alcohol, combustible cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. It found that in 2018, students were less likely than before to perceive that it is easy to obtain alcohol, combustible cigarettes, and marijuana.

However, reported psychological distress and associated mental-health measurements, as well as reports of suicidal behavior, have risen steadily since 2014. Feeling unsafe at school increased substantially in 2018.

These school districts did not participate in the survey: Anchorage, Barbourville, Beechwood, Berea, Bowling Green, Dawson Springs, East Bernstadt, Fayette County, Fort Thomas, Glasgow, Hardin County, Hopkins County, Kenton County, Laurel County, Lee County, Logan County,  Paintsville, Raceland, Rockcastle County, Russellville, Science Hill and Warren County.

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