Youth use of electronic cigarettes has come under increased scrutiny as federal health authorities and local officials respond to a growing number of deaths and hospitalizations blamed on the devices.
On Monday, Monroe County Public Health Commissioner Michael Mendoza urged “all residents of Monroe County to stop using all vape products,” pointing in particular to a marked increase in use of the products among high school students locally.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration cited similar concerns, announcing plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes to curb youth vaping.
Lisa Harris, a chief medical officer at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, said the trend has been clear.
“Young people are the ones who tend to use e-cigarettes even more than older people,” Harris said. “The data shows that we’re having an epidemic-type crisis among youth.”
Public health researchers fretted that a decades-long decline in tobacco use among American youths is being undone by the rise of e-cigarettes.
Youth use of the devices rose 160% in New York state over the last five years, according to the state health department.
In Monroe County, 45% of high school seniors said they'd used vape products, according to data from a public health department survey last school year. Nearly a third said they'd used them in the last month.
Harris acknowledged that it’s an uphill battle to reduce e-cigarette use among a teenage population that views them as cool and not too dangerous.
“You have to show the un-coolness of it,” Harris said. “It’s education, education, education. The only way you can combat misinformation is with appropriate information and education. So, we keep hammering away: educate, educate, educate, educate. Re-educate, and educate again.”
Excellus has been distributing a poster focusing on the risks that e-cigarettes pose to young users to schools and health care providers in the Rochester area, Harris said.
Reducing e-cigarette use among teenagers is a unique challenge, said Stephen Cook, a pediatrician at Golisano Children’s Hospital. The devices exist at a particular intersection of social pressure, novelty and marketing.
The tactics doctors use should be different than for adults, he said.
Teenage brains are wired to focus on short-term goals, Cook said, so he often shelves his concerns about long-term health consequences and instead discusses the cost of the products and their potential to cause acute health problems.
He has real-world examples to share with his patients, Cook said.
“Our pediatric hospital team – ICU team – has reported patients in our area getting admitted, and, usually because they’re in severe respiratory distress, they have to at least go to the intensive care unit to be observed.”
Health officials at the state and local level said it’s still unclear exactly what’s behind the surge in severe lung problems among e-cigarette users recently.
But to Harris at Excellus, one thing is clear: “These are not safe products,” she said.