Countering the rise of e-cigarettes

Ryan Sheahan, from Madison Dane County Public Health, gave a presentation on e-cigarettes and vaping Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the DeForest Area Public Library with representatives from law enforcement and the schools. Pictured here from left to right are: Sheahan; Dane County Sheriff’s Deputy John Nelson; Pastor Penny Dahl, from North Windsor UMC; School Resource Officer Shaun Hughes; DeForest Schools Director of Administrative Services Pete Wilson; and Dane County Sheriff’s Deputy Lisa Krause-Hengst.

Use of e-cigarettes and vaping products among young adults is trending upward. Ryan Sheahan is working to stem the tide with education.

His talk on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the DeForest Area Public Library laid out how they’ve become the hip new nicotine delivery devices.

“It starts with a very simple message to youth: ‘Nicotine is brain poison,’” said Sheahan, who has spent around 20 years fighting tobacco use.

Sheahan is the program coordinator for the Tobacco Free Columbia Dane County Coalition. His presentation on the “Rise of the E-Cig and Juul” attracted around 15-20 people, as Sheahan explained what a Juul is, talked about how e-cigs work, detailed the effects on nicotine on the body and what schools, communities and governmental policy can do to counteract the growing popularity of such materials.

Representatives of the DeForest Police Department, the Dane County Sheriff’s Department and DeForest Public Schools were also present.

Going through the statistics, Sheahan noted that 480,000 preventable deaths per year are caused by tobacco use. Also, between 2000-2012, 32.9 percent of high schoolers admitted to smoking cigarettes, but that rate had fallen to 7.7 percent by 2018.

“Over the past 20 years, we’ve been creating social mores where youth don’t think smoking is cool,” said Sheahan.

In 2012, e-cigarettes came on the market. They didn’t make a big impact immediately. Around that time, only 1.9 percent of high schoolers were using them. Things changed in 2016, however, when Juul arrived, said Sheahan. By 2016, more than 20 percent of high schoolers were using e-cigarettes, according to Sheahan.

“That was singlehandedly responsible for reversing the trend with tobacco use,” said Sheahan. Now, he says one in five Wisconsin teens use e-cigarettes.

Sheahan reported that three to seven times as many e-cigarette users are likely to switch to regular cigarettes, according to a 2018 study by the Journal of Pediatrics.

As Sheahan explained, e-cigarettes are battery-operated nicotine delivery systems. They heat up a nicotine solution of four different ingredients – some of them considered to be cancer-causing, according to Sheahan – to 300 to 500 degrees, and the device’s atomizer creates an aerosol vapor. Sheahan said people can get secondhand aerosol from an e-cigarette, just as they can get secondhand smoke from someone’s cigarette.

The devices have changed over the years, according to Sheahan. The new generation of such products are small, sleek and colorful, he said. Sheahan said they all utilize flavors. There are more than 7,000 flavors on the market, according to Sheahan, who cited a poll saying that nine out of 10 Wisconsin teens wouldn’t use e-cigarettes if they did not contain flavors.

“Flavors hook our kids,” said Sheahan.

In Sheahan’s opinion, the marketing of e-cigarettes and vaping products is geared toward young people, citing the use of images of Fortnite and Marvel comic book heroes as draws.

“I don’t know how many 65-year-olds play Fortnite,” said Sheahan.

Manufacturers are also making accessories that allow teens to vape more discretely. Wearables such as vape hoodies and vape backpacks can be purchased online. Sheahan showed a vape watch on the market that sells for $50. Some are disguised as asthma inhalers, lipstick containers or smart phone cases.

Sheahan referred to them “hidden in plain sight” devices.

While Sheahan said some of the products may not contain as much nicotine as cigarettes, he said that doesn’t make them harmless.

“Cigarettes are one of the worst things you can do your body,” said Sheahan. “Safer does not equal ‘safe.’”

Sheahan talked about how these products have become more addictive and how the federal government is cracking down on them. He also explained how social media and social media influencers played a role in marketing campaigns.

“Essentially, it’s ‘Big Tobacco’ all over again,” said Sheahan.

Sheahan outlined how nicotine damages the brain and the body. It’s impact is especially hard on young people.

“In adolescents, it can rewire the brain,” said Sheahan, adding that the brain then begins to believe it needs more addictive substances.

Sheahan said evidence is building to determine the long-term effects of e-cigarettes. He also said that in the past with tobacco, it took a long time for policy to catch up to the science. He’s hoping there isn’t a repeat with e-cigarettes.

Just as important is educating school staff about “hidden in plain sight” products and school districts establishing a strong e-cigarette policy. However, he advocates an alternative to suspension or citation for students who get caught using them that involves education. A strong curriculum about the effects of e-cigarettes is important as well.

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