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Teen vaping is finally trending downward, but experts warn the return to in person learning could reverse progress

Experts say the return to in-person learning could be a double-edged sword in the fight against teen vaping

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The number of kids who use e-cigarettes, or “vapes,”  declined in 2020, from 5.4 million in 2019 to 3.6 million in 2020. 

Some of that is being attributed to the pandemic and the fact that students were home more, under the watchful eye of their parents. 

But experts are now issuing a warning about a potential spike in use, as kids return to in-person learning and spend more time with their peers. 

In North Carolina from 2011 to 2019, e-cig use in middle schoolers increased 510%.

In high schoolers, it increased by 1,129%. 

“We have a nation of nicotine-addicted kids," said Dorian Fuhrman, mom and co-founder of Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes (PAVe), says although it appears teen vaping rates declined in 2020, it's still a huge problem.

“We are still at epidemic levels," she said.

Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says e-cig use among minors will likely spike again as kids head back to school in person.

"As kids are going back to school, which is a terrific development, we are concerned that the peer pressure that led to so many kids using these products will return as well," Myers said. “Peer pressure is enormously powerful. And these products were designed to be cool.”

Experts also say says the COVID-19 risk is a new and very concerning factor.

"These devices are meant to be shared," Fuhrman explained. "Kids will huddle in a bathroom, and pass them around. So right there, they're passing germs around, and the chances of them getting COVID are that much higher."

Early research also indicates e-cig users suffer worse virus symptoms.

“Kids' lungs are developing until the age of 25, or 27," Fuhrman said. "And we hear from pediatricians around the country, that patients who vape and then get COVID have worse symptoms than their patients who don't vape.”

Furhman added it’s important for parents and teachers to look for warning signs.

“If you notice your kid is going to the bathroom a lot or stepping outside a lot," she listed as indicators. "Extreme thirst. Impulse control issues, you know, if their mood changes dramatically…but it's not always evident. So you really have to pay attention."

Experts and medical professionals hope the return to in-person learning doesn't reverse a promising downward trend, saying now is the time for parents to have those tough conversations.

“Start speaking with your kids very early," Fuhrman  suggested. "They're not going to want to talk to you. But you have to keep going. This is our kids' health. And there's nothing more important than that.”

Here are some tips to consider before you have a conversation with your kids, courtesy of Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes (PAVe):

  1. Your goal is to keep the conversation going. Nothing shuts down communication faster than yelling, judging, criticizing, or pressuring. A better approach is to listen, ask questions, and be supportive. Listen more, talk less.
  2. Don’t freak out. Just because they know or are asking about vaping doesn’t mean they’re doing it. Pause before you respond and recalibrate if your knee jerk response is to freak out.
  3. Look at where and when you’re holding the conversation. Are you trying to start a conversation about vaping while they’re focused on studying for their math test or playing a video game? These talks are sort of like a round of jump rope; you need to know when to jump in. Look for low-pressure moments. For example, while you’re cooking and they’re snacking at the kitchen table. Or talk about it in the car, which removes the pressure of eye contact. You know your kid, and you know when they’re most receptive to a conversation.
  4. Keep the touchpoints quick. Quick, frequent conversations are much more effective than one big sit down conversation. There’s too much pressure in a serious sit down, and your kids may tune you out.
  5. Look for teachable moments. Don’t bring it back to people they know; no one wants their friends judged. But e-cigarettes are often in the news or part of an assembly at school. Make the conversation relevant, and your kid won’t feel like you’re bringing up vaping out of the blue.
  6. Remember that it’s fine to not have all the answers. Whether it’s about vaping or about how to combat peer pressure, you’re not all-powerful. So admit that you’re in this journey together, and you’ll figure it… together.

More resources for parents can be found here.