AAfter more than a year of online learning and social distancing with their friends and peers, many teens are finally returning to school and their social circles this fall. But as students make plans for the new school year, we might also see the resurgence of another health crisis that was bad even before the COVID-19 shutdown: the e-cigarette epidemic among young people.
In the early months of 2020, teen vaping was rampant in schools; 3.6 million children, including 1 in 5 high school students, have used electronic cigarettes. Now, as students return to school, they might once again face the conditions that caused the vaping epidemic in the first place: the powerful influence of peer pressure and the wide availability of electronic cigarette products that attract kids with fun flavors and can quickly get addicting. them with massive doses of nicotine. The industry is well aware that 83% of young vapers use flavored products.
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The back to school coincides with another critical date on the calendar: the Food and Drug Administration faces a September 9 deadline to decide which e-cigarette products can stay on the market. To truly protect children and end the e-cigarette epidemic among young people, the FDA must eliminate the flavored and high-nicotine products – including the popular menthol flavor – that caused this crisis. Parents, educators, and health advocates rely on the FDA to take them off the shelves.
The evidence is clear that as long as flavored electronic cigarettes are on the market, kids will get their hands on them. Last year, the FDA banned flavors other than menthol in cartridge-based products like Juul, but left other flavored e-cigarettes widely available. What happened next was quite predictable: the children migrated to the flavored products that were left. The use of disposable e-cigarettes like Puff Bar has jumped 1,000% among high school students, and there has also been a noticeable shift towards menthol products, with over a million children using them in 2020.
Those of us who work in schools and take care of the health and well-being of students remember what it was like before the classrooms closed. Juul and other e-cigarettes were everywhere, and traces of mint and fruit-scented aerosols lingered in hallways and bathrooms as the teens quietly tried to satisfy their dangerous nicotine addiction. Educators even felt it in classrooms. Nurses, teachers, and administrators were constantly confiscating devices, with piles of Juuls filling their desks’ drawers. Some schools have had to remove bathroom doors to prevent children from trying to secretly vape. The percentage of high school e-cigarette users reporting frequent or daily use has increased steadily, reaching almost 39% in 2020. This is not surprising, because e-cigs like Juul contain so much nicotine than a whole pack of cigarettes.
The US Surgeon General has found that the consumption of nicotine in any form by young people is dangerous, addictive, and may interfere with adolescent brain development, which impacts learning, memory, and life. ‘Warning. Studies indicate that young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke regular cigarettes, and nicotine use during adolescence may increase the risk of future addiction to other drugs.
With the resurgence of COVID-19 cases from the Delta variant, it’s more important than ever to keep children’s lungs healthy by preventing young people from smoking or vaping. For school nurses, that means this school year will bring even more challenges. In addition to navigating COVID-19 and the pandemic’s mental health fallout, they will need to redouble their efforts to educate teens about the risks of vaping.
Teachers and parents will also need to relearn how to recognize the signs of e-cigarette use and addiction. E-cigs can be difficult to identify due to their sleek and unobtrusive designs that resemble USB sticks or pens. If teens spend more time alone than usual, find excuses to hang out frequently, or have a sweet smell on their clothes or in their bedrooms, this could be signs of vaping. Others include an unexplained cough or increased thirst, increased irritability, and mood swings.
But nurses, educators and parents alone cannot tackle youth vaping. More than anything, we need the support of the FDA and other policymakers, who are the only ones with the power to eliminate the flavored products that are causing this epidemic.
As the new school year begins, we would all like to start over. But until the FDA takes action, we’re going to be faced with the same thing. It’s time for the agency to stop playing mole and eliminate all flavored e-cigarettes.
Laurie Rubiner is Executive Vice President, National Programs, for the Tobacco Free Kids Campaign. Linda Mendonca is President of the National Association of School Nurses and Assistant Professor at Rhode Island College School of Nursing. She was a school nurse for two decades.
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