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Frequency of local teen vaping pushed by pandemic

Free “quit kits” for teens using tobacco products are available locally through school counselors or Grand Futures Prevention Coalition. (Courtesy photo)

The biennial Healthy Kids Colorado Survey shows a steady 26% of Colorado high school students used e-cigarettes from 2015 to 2019 before some declines began in late 2019, but the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic may have pushed some students in Northwest Colorado to “vape” more often.

Vaping is the inhaling of a vapor created by an electronic cigarette, also known as e-cigarettes, or other vaping device.

Amber Delay, executive director of Grand Futures Prevention Coalition that serves Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, said local families and school staff report signs of continued or increased vaping by middle and high school students in the three counties. Delay said the pressure to use e-cigarettes was compounded during the pandemic due to higher levels of social isolation, increased student anxiety and fewer healthy outlets available for coping mechanisms in rural communities.



“We are hearing from school staff and parents in all three school districts in Routt County that we are seeing an increase,” Delay noted. “We received an increased number of calls throughout this past year regarding vaping.”

Assistant Professor Ashley Brooks-Russell at the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz Medical Campus directs the healthy kids survey that is completed in the fall of every odd year. She said some cases of teen vaping may have decreased during the pandemic when students were learning virtually at home with more parental supervision.



The professor’s team conducted an abbreviated off-year student survey in fall 2020 to gather data from 26 high schools, including Hayden. She said from fall 2019 to fall 2020, researchers did see a “statistically significant decline” in general substance use due to students not being able to go to parties, having fewer social interactions and spending more time with parents.

Lindsay Kohler, school social worker for the Hayden School District, said the short survey last fall showed 16% of students reported using e-cigarettes more often during the pandemic. On the other hand, results showed fewer number of students using e-cigarettes and fewer reporting that e-cigarettes are easy to get.

“Anecdotally, we have definitely seen an increase in the use of e-cigarettes here, and it is happening as young as seventh grade,” Kohler said. “It’s important for parents to know how easy e-cigarettes are to hide and how easily students can use them any time and pretty much anywhere.”

For example, area middle school students might be found vaping in school bathrooms, and some high school students may vape in the back of large classrooms hidden under loose clothing.

Since community organizations had limited access in schools during the pandemic, Delay said Grand Futures tried to reach out to more parents this past year.

“One of biggest things for us is education for parents, because vaping is easy for young people to get and easy to find, so we would encourage parents not to assume that their youth would never do it,” Delay said. “We encourage open dialogue with teens based in facts.”

Professor Brooks-Russell said she hopes the use of e-cigarettes by teens will drop as the newness factor fades away and more teens recognize the dangers of injuries to lungs, including the 2019 outbreak of deaths due to Vitamin E acetate additive found in some vaping products. Experts say vaping is especially worrisome because studies show teens who vape are four times more likely to smoke regular cigarettes one year later.

Kohler also works with families to understand the marketing pressures from e-cigarette makers.

“It’s important for parents to know that vaping is just like the new smoking and that young people are being targeted in the same way that their parents were with cigarette advertising decades ago,” Kohler said.

With the help of Grand Futures, Kohler supervises an UpRISE small group tobacco cessation program for youth. UpRISE is a program of Tobacco Free Colorado, and Grand Futures can assist schools in starting an UpRISE group with a school staff sponsor.

The UpRISE program provides teen “quit kits,” including stress balls, fidget spinners and resources. The free kits are available through local school counselors or by contacting Grand Futures directly at info@grandfutures.org or 970-819-7805.

Delay also recommends the National Jewish Health website resource, My Life My Quit. That site notes that more than 70 chemicals have been found in vape clouds ranging from acetone to arsenic, from benzene to ethanol. The site also promotes positive factual messaging of social norms such as, “Three out of four high school students don’t use tobacco.”


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