Claire Fiddian-Green is the president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, a private philanthropic organization located in Indianapolis.
As a parent of two teenagers, I think constantly about how my children are faring as they navigate adolescence. Are they trying hard enough in school? Are they learning to consume social media responsibly? How can I ensure they aren't being exposed to alcohol and other drugs, and falling prey to the risk of addiction?
So I was deeply concerned to read a report released in mid-September by the Food and Drug Administration that youth e-cigarette use has reached “epidemic” levels, and is in danger of reversing decades of progress made to reduce tobacco use in our country. As Indiana continues to grapple with the opioid crisis and other substance-use challenges, we must do everything in our power to address youth e-cigarette use head on.
Here are the startling facts. More than 2 million middle school, high school and college students in the U.S. use e-cigarettes, and nearly 12 percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students have used the device in the past 30 days, according to the 2017 National Youth Tobacco Survey. In Indiana, 29 percent of high school seniors report using e-cigarettes.
It turns out there is a misguided perception among our children that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional, or combustible, cigarettes. The truth is that many e-cigarette brands (including the market leader, Juul) contain nearly as much nicotine as combustible cigarettes, and kids who would have never lit up are now consuming nicotine via vaping. What's more, the FDA finds that kids who vape are more likely to try traditional cigarettes – putting them at risk of becoming lifelong smokers.
But why does youth e-cigarette use matter?
First, tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S. and contributes to the death of more than 11,000 Hoosiers every year. Tobacco, of course, contains nicotine – a highly addictive substance. Second, 90 percent of adult smokers report that they began using tobacco by the age of 18 – in other words, when they were in middle or high school. There is no doubt that early exposure to nicotine raises the likelihood of lifelong addiction. In combination, these stats make the fact that so many children are using nicotine and other potentially harmful inhalants via e-cigarettes alarming.
The good news is the FDA is taking steps to get e-cigarettes out of the hands of kids and to raise awareness of the harmful effects of e-cigarette use by young people. But we shouldn't assume that steps taken by the federal government will be sufficient to address the vaping epidemic.
Over the past few decades, Indiana has made solid gains in reducing tobacco use, but we risk jeopardizing that progress if we stand idly by as a new generation of youth become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarette use. This a defining moment for our state, and we have an opportunity to set a strong leadership example for the nation.
We should start by implementing and strictly enforcing policies that keep e-cigarettes and tobacco products out of the hands of young people. We should also prioritize proven substance use-prevention initiatives in K-12 schools. These steps require action from all of us: parents, schools, employers, health care providers and others – in short, anyone who cares about the well-being of our kids.
We have the tools to stop nicotine addiction in its tracks. For the sake of Indiana children, let's take a strong stand against the youth e-cigarette epidemic.