The “Juul” e-cigarette is easily concealed due to the fact that it looks like a USB device, which makes it popular among teenagers.

There’s good news and bad news in a recent study on Kentucky high school students and smoking.

While Kentucky high school students continue to smoke at higher rates than their national counterparts (14.3 percent to 8.8 percent), their rates continue to drop. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that an influx of new vaping products could reverse this downward trend, especially the popular “Juul” e-cigarette, which packs a powerful nicotine punch in dozens of flavors. And because it is small and looks like a USB drive, it is easy to hide from parents and teachers.

Juuls have gained popularity over the last year with people who vape. It was invented by Stanford students who were trying to quit smoking conventional cigarettes and wanted a better alternative.  Juuls are the bestselling vape device on the market with 32 percent of the market share. What is a Juul? It’s a sleek, metallic device that looks like a flash drive, with a rechargeable battery and flavored liquid cartridges.

Juul devices can be bought online or in convenience stores. The legal age for buying a vape pen is 21 but young adults can easily get around the law. Juul devices have higher concentrations of nicotine which is creating a new generation with an addiction to it. Conventional cigarette smoking has been on the decline for years but with the popularity of the Juul, young adults are turning to them as their addiction grows.  Juuling gives users a short buzz like a cigarette which adds to the addiction.   

One renowned thoracic surgeon would like to see youths steer clear of electronic cigarettes.

“The concern, as a thoracic surgeon, is that it (electronic cigarettes) is a useful tool in helping quit smoking,” Dr. Eric Presser, the author of “An Empowering Guide to Lung Cancer: Six Steps to Taking Charge of Your Care and Your Life,” said. “It has less toxic effects on the body (than tobacco) but it’s still there. And it’s creating a new generation of people who are going to be addicted to nicotine. It makes you crave nicotine, and you will get it any way you can.”

The recently released 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 14.3 percent of Kentucky high school students reported smoking cigarettes; 14.1 percent said they smoked e-cigarettes; 10.6 used smokeless tobacco; 11 percent smoked cigars; and 26 percent of those who reported using tobacco products use more than one product.

All of those numbers are higher than the national average, significantly higher in some cases. Only 70 of the state’s 173 school districts have adopted 100 percent tobacco-free school policies and only 49 of those have included electronic cigarettes in their policies. At the last Laurel County School Board meeting, the board amended a clause in the smoking section that read anyone on school grounds is not allowed to have cigarettes or electronic devices. The intention of the clause is to forbid electronic smoking devices on school grounds. While school board member John Begley said this could raise confusion about cell phones and other non-smoking devices, the board agreed to update that clause to specify that it is about electronic smoking devices to clear up any confusion.

Dr. Presser said that a lot of students, even middle school students, are vaping in class using Juul because it’s odorless and they think “it’s cool.”

“That’s becoming a problem,” Dr. Presser said. “When adults are trying to quit smoking (electronic cigarettes) are beneficial. There’s no argument there. But there’s no real regulation on e-cigs right now. That’s the big problem. You can go down to the gas station and get it.”

Dr. Presser also said electronic cigarettes haven’t been around long enough to gauge their long-term effects on the body.

“We don’t know what the toxic levels are,” Dr. Presser said. “We don’t know the level of cancer-causing agents, whether it’s low or high. But it’s still there. It’s the lesser of two evils, but we don’t know the long-term effects.”

Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky President and CEO Ben Chandler is worried that the use of electronic cigarettes will undermine all the progress the state has made. About 45 percent of the state’s high school students in the survey said they had tried an electronic vapor product.

“And the explosion in teen popularity of new e-cigarette products threatens to undermine all the progress we’ve made by hooking teens on nicotine products that are proven gateways to smoking,” Chandler told Kentucky Health News. “How sad it would be if we ended up back where we were a generation ago.”

“A lot of people think it’s just vapor,” Dr. Presser said. “It tastes nice and smells nice. But there’s no doubt they are harmful. You are inhaling chemicals. Common sense tells us we should be breathing clean air. There’s no real solid evidence on long-term effects (of vaping).”

While some may argue that vaping is safer than tobacco, in the long run, no one knows for sure exactly how much safer. Tobacco has been around a lot longer than vaping, and more tests need to be conducted to determine if vaping has any potentially harmful long-term effects.

Dr. Presser has a simple solution.

“Why put anything in your body that has the potential to harm you?” Presser said.

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