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Addicting a whole new generation

The Madisonian - Staff Photo -

Just over 40%. That’s how many Madison County high schoolers reported to have used an electronic vapor tobaccoless nicotine product, better known as e-cigarettes or vapes. That number was recently published by the Montana Office of Public Instruction in its 2021 Youth Risk Behavior report.
Some counties in the state had more than half of high schoolers reporting vape usage of some level, but as Madison County Public Health Department Director Emilie Sayler put it, when the goal is zero, 40% of 111 local respondents is no small percentage.
Vaping is not a new topic for Sayler, who said she’s discussed the term so much she’s grown tired of using the word. But whatever the term for the tobacco-free nicotine vapor products, it’s an issue that’s not going away as more and more of the products become available. Initially vaping was seen as a way to quit smoking, said Sayler, but it’s now known that vaping poses its own set of health hazards.
And, at a low price point and with flavors and designs that often appeal to teens, vaping is a measurable threat to youth. It’s the new way for big tobacco companies, who own many of the vaping products on the shelves, to reach the younger population.
“They’re rapidly changing, and they’re more and more appealing all the time,” said Sayler, whose concern lies not only in her role as the county health director, but also as a parent of a teen. “As these vapes and tools evolve and change so rapidly we might not know what they are when we see them.”
When it comes to tobacco use prevention, Erin Montgomery is Madison County’s go-to gal. Through funds provided via the Montana Tobacco Use Prevention Program Montgomery offers educational services to both Beaverhead and Madison County communities. She uses the data from the OPI study and others to guide her lessons which are provided to school staff and students.
Last year Montgomery worked with the Ennis School District, providing students in sixth to tenth grades a two-day course using an OPI presentation followed by small group sessions in which students were invited to ask questions and discuss their experiences with vaping.
On August 19 Montgomery will provide Harrison School District staff with a nicotine awareness course which will get down to the basics and include hands-on examples of the various products available in stores locally.
“It’ll include the newest things kids are using, including the disposable e-cigarettes which are huge right now, and can be really hard to recognize, they look like USBs sometimes, and they come in appealing flavors,” said Montgomery, explaining that while flavored vaping products were banned in reusable products, companies were able to circumvent that by offering flavored disposable products. “I’ve seen kids’ faces light up when they talk about the flavors.”
Other schools in the county are invited also take advantage of Montgomery’s educational opportunities. She plans to offer further outreach to students regarding nicotine use. Last year was a tricky one due to the pandemic, she said, but Montgomery’s goal is to reach every school in the county this time around as she feels prevention is hugely important.
The recent OPI risk survey found that 23.6% of Madison County high schoolers have tried smoking cigarettes at least once – 10.9% of those had done so before turning 13. Montgomery said there is a perception that the issue of teen smoking has successfully been addressed, but instead, vaping has taken over where traditional smoking has fallen off.
An alarming reality for health officials is that vaping is significantly more popular with youth than adults – Montgomery cited a survey that found while just 6% of Montana adults report e-cigarette use, 30% of the state’s youth admit to the same.
Use of the smokeless nicotine products are getting a whole new generation addicted to nicotine, said Montgomery, which in turn makes youth more likely to turn to tobacco products.
“We feel that traditional cigarette use in youth was largely under control, and that this generation would have remained largely tobacco free,” said Montgomery. “But once someone’s addicted to e-cigarettes, it’s pretty easy to go right into smoking, chewing, because now you have to feed your addiction.”
Beyond nicotine and tobacco use the 94-page youth risk report deep dives into risky issues of many types, from drinking and driving to seatbelt use, carrying guns, suicidal thoughts, bullying and more. To view the school-specific report visit https://opi.mt.gov/Leadership/ Data-Reporting/Youth-Risk-Behavior-Survey.

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