New data reveals alarming rise in vaping by Rhode Island high school students

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The percentage of Rhode Island high school students who report frequent use of vaping products almost tripled in the last two years, and one-in-two Rhode Island high school students now report having tried vaping, according to new data released today by the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH).

According to RIDOH’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), 10.2% of high school students now report frequent use of “electronic vapor products.” In 2017, 3.7% of high school students reported frequent use. (“Frequent use” is use on 20 or more days in the 30 days before the survey.) The 2019 YRBS indicated that 48.9% of high school students have ever vaped. Additionally, 30.1% of high school students in 2019 reported that they currently vape. In 2017, 20.1% of Rhode Island high school students reported current use. (“Current use” is use at least once in the last 30 days.) The YRBS is conducted every two years by RIDOH.

“These numbers are a wake-up call for all of us,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo in a press release provided by RIDOH. “Electronic cigarettes are dangerous. They’re also responsible for getting more teenagers addicted to nicotine every year, primarily because of products that come in candy-like flavors. That’s why I took action this September. Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our kids.”

On September 25, Governor Raimondo signed an Executive Order directing RIDOH to issue emergency health regulations banning the sale of flavored Electronic Nicotine Delivery System (ENDS) products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most youth e-cigarette users report using flavored products, and flavors are the primary reason youth report using e-cigarettes. RIDOH issued emergency health regulations banning the sale of flavored ENDS products on October 4. The ban is still in place. (On November 5, a Superior Court judge ruled against a request for a restraining order to temporarily block the ban.)

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The Bit Players

Governor Raimondo’s Executive Order also called on RIDOH to convene a Vaping Advisory Committee. That group first met on October 30. It includes healthcare providers, public health professionals, students, school officials, people in the business community, and many others. The group’s charge is to monitor state and national vaping developments and provide recommendations on next steps related to vaping to promote public health.

RIDOH staff have been in the community conducting compliance checks and educating retailers about the ban. This face-to-face education in the community complements the communication that RIDOH sent directly to retailers and posted online. RIDOH has also developed a guide for businesses on the ban on flavored ENDS products.

“Every young person in Rhode Island deserves the chance to grow up healthy,” said Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH in the press release. “To make this possible, we have to act on e-cigarettes now. Our history with traditional, lit cigarettes tells us that targeted, aggressive policies aimed at keeping kids safe can have dramatic impacts on rates of youth use. While putting policies in place related to flavored products, we’re working hard to let people know that there are safe, effective resources in Rhode Island for quitting. Help is available today at no cost.”

The percentage of middle school students who have ever vaped was 16.4 in 2019, compared to 15.7 in 2017. In 2019, 6.5% of middle school students reported current use of electronic vapor products.

Health risks to young people from vaping include nicotine addiction and learning and memory issues. Nicotine is extremely harmful to the developing brain. Other health issues include lung illnesses, heart problems, injuries resulting from battery explosions, and accidental childhood nicotine poisonings. High school students who vaping are four times more likely to smoke lit cigarettes in the future.

Teenagers who are addicted to vaping nicotine can use the Truth Initiative’s This Is Quitting text-based app. They should text HOPE4RI to 88709. Separately, the Rhode Island Nicotine Helpline (1-800-QUIT-NOW/1-800-784-8669) is ready to support any Rhode Islanders older than 13 years old who want help quitting smoking or vaping. Nicotine Replacement Therapy is available at no charge to any Rhode Islander 18 and older, regardless of insurance status.

The YRBS is a collaboration between the CDC, RIDOH, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), and the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals (BHDDH). The survey is implemented through anonymous questionnaires in Rhode Island public schools. These most recent data were collected between January 2019 and May 2019.

Other topics covered by the YRBS include obesity, physical activity and nutrition, mental health, sexual health, unintentional injuries and violence, and alcohol and drug use. RIDOH is still analyzing the data in these areas. These additional data will be released in the coming weeks.

The YRBS is one of three youth school surveys conducted in Rhode Island. RIDE administers SurveyWorks annually, which is a school climate survey of students in grades 3-5 and 6-12, and parents and teachers. BHDDH conducts the RI Student Survey every other year with middle and high school students. These three surveys together help policy makers, school administrators, social service workers, and public health professionals understand trends in the health behaviors of young people across the state and to create health-related policies that will impact those behaviors.