Giving Thought: Teen vaping a community concern for Aspen, entire state
At Aspen Community Foundation, we talk a lot about youth success: things that make a positive difference in a child’s life and what prevents them from succeeding.
The effects of drug and alcohol use on the adolescent brain have been widely documented. Because their brains are still developing, teens are more susceptible to addiction than adults. Nicotine, a substance that seemed to be falling out of favor, at least among the youth, seems to be making a comeback courtesy of e-cigarettes and vaping.
In Colorado, teens are vaping in surprising numbers, roughly twice the national average. Colorado ranks first in the country for youth vaping, according to a 2017 survey in 37 states. This is problematic because 99% of e-cigarettes contain nicotine. One interchangeable Juul pod (perhaps the most popular ESD) looks like a USB flash drive, provides about 200 puffs, and contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
The ability to enjoy smoking without the burn and odor of tobacco smoke is convincing hordes of consumers — and especially teenagers — to try electronic smoking devices, or ESDs. Instead of tobacco leaves, these devices contain an artificial liquid, often chemically flavored to resemble fruit or candy, which produces a vapor when ignited.
Part of e-cigs’ appeal is that they have less nicotine than conventional cigarettes and are therefore a “safer” alternative for adults seeking to quit or cut back. But the packaging and marketing used to sell the products — in flavors like mango, bubble gum and creme brulee, for example — clearly target kids.
“The issues with nicotine are basically two,” said Risa Turetsky of the Pitkin County Public Health Department. “First, we’re really concerned about the effects of nicotine on a child’s brain. Second, nicotine products are so accessible. They’re on shelves in every supermarket and convenience store.”
According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, “Young adults are uniquely at risk for long-term, long-lasting effects of exposing their developing brains to nicotine. These risks include nicotine addiction, mood disorders and permanent lowering of impulse control. Nicotine also changes the way synapses are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning.”
To counter these threats, Turetsky and public health officials from Eagle and Garfield counties are working together to address e-cigarette use in the Aspen-to-Parachute region and develop potential solutions. In March, 46 regional officials from cities, counties, school districts, health departments, youth programs and nonprofit organizations gathered in Glenwood Springs to discuss the situation and brainstorm possible remedies.
Turetsky said three students even showed up to tell the assembled officials, “I’m addicted to this product and I wish I weren’t.”
Elected officials have been slow to react to the explosion of e-cigarettes on the market, but awareness is catching on. Cities and towns including Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale and Snowmass Village have prohibited retailers from selling vape products to anyone younger than 21, but businesses outside those municipal boundaries aren’t subject to those ordinances. It’s also unclear how strictly the rules are enforced.
Earlier this year, Colorado lawmakers approved a measure that enables counties to adopt similar restrictions. They also brought ESDs under the umbrella of the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act, which requires public spaces to be smoke-free. These laws will make ESDs harder to obtain and use, but rules still vary widely in different communities across the state.
“By bringing people together and sharing what we know, we can take some shared responsibility for what to do going forward,” Turetsky said.
Consistent policies are an important part of that picture, but so is education. Officials like Turetsky are working hard to get the word out about e-cigarettes through public talks.
A good place to start for anyone new to the subject of vaping is a blog post, written by Turetsky and Courtney Dunn of the Aspen School District, on the Aspen Strong website (aspenstrong.org). The post, dated March 6 (it requires a little scrolling to find), includes numerous links to other information sources, including the Surgeon General’s website, news reports and tips on how to talk to teens about the issue.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.