The use of electronic vapor products by teens across Hawaii is concerning state health officials.
Lola Irvin, administrator of the state Department of Health’s Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Division, said in the 2017 Hawaii Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 42.3% of high school students in the state said they had tried electronic vapor products like e-cigarettes, e-cigars, e-pipes, vape pipes and pens, e-hookahs and hookah pens.
More than 16,300 public middle and high school students across the state participated in the survey, a joint project of the DOH, the state Department of Education and the University of Hawaii. On the Big Island, 1,517 surveys were taken at 10 high schools, and there were 1,605 participants at 13 middle schools.
According to information provided by Irvin, 49.6% of Big Island high school students surveyed said they had tried electronic vapor products, compared to 45.3% in Kauai County, 50.7% in Maui County and 39% in Honolulu county.
Additionally, 34.1% of Big Island high school students surveyed in 2017 said they had used these products in the past 30 days, which defines them as a “current user.”
Statewide, 25.5% of students surveyed were current users.
The number of middle school students in the state who have used electronic vapor products is also higher on neighbor islands.
Statewide, 27.3% of middle school students have reported trying such products, while 35.8 % of Big Island students surveyed have reported trying them.
The legal smoking age in Hawaii is 21.
It’s “really hard for a middle school student to pose as a 21-year-old,” Irvin said. “… But if we have almost a third of middle school students (on Hawaii Island) saying they’ve tried it, then we’re concerned about how they’re getting it and the attitude of safety around it.”
According to Irvin, studies have shown that youth who have never had regular tobacco but start on e-cigarettes are four times more likely to try regular cigarettes and three times more likely to become regular cigarette smokers.
“What we see, then, in terms of the marketing of this product and seeing (that) the tobacco (companies) have purchased e-cigarette brands, our youth may well become the replacement smokers of the future, the near future,” she said.
While the technology used in these electronic products is “really attractive” to youth — as are the candy and fruit flavors that draw them in — for health officials, the greatest concern is nicotine.
“Flavors bring them, then the nicotine keeps them,” Irvin said.
One pack of cigarettes, or 20 cigarettes, contains about 20 milligrams of nicotine.
According to Irvin, in a pod-based vaping system like the Juul, one small pod contains 20 cigarettes worth of nicotine, while larger Juul pods contain the equivalent of nearly 41 cigarettes.
Phix pods, which have recently arrived in Hawaii, contain 75 milligrams of nicotine, which is about 75 cigarettes, she said, and one Suorin pod contains the equivalent nicotine of nearly 90 cigarettes.
Nicotine is highly addictive and can be detrimental to young brains that are still developing.
The brain develops until age 25, said Irvin, and in 2016, a report from the surgeon general said that nicotine use during adolescence can disrupt the formation of brain circuits that control attention, learning and the susceptibility to addiction.
Irvin said another problem with electronic vapor products is that thereisn’t “policy parity,” meaning there aren’t equivalent regulations at the state and federal levels for the devices.
“They’re actually cheaper than regular cigarettes, (and are) also being marketed in a way the cigarettes cannot be marketed,” she said.
There is “no such thing as candy and fruit flavored cigarettes … but you have candy and fruit flavored e-cigarette products. You cannot legally order cigarettes online, you can’t ship them to people online. But with e-cigarettes and e-liquid, they can be ordered and shipped online,” Irvin said.
Andy Takaaze, an employee with Irie Hawaii, however said the state needs a possession law for such devices.
“The only laws we have in place is purchasing laws,” he said. “… We need possession laws. If you have to be 21 to obtain the item, you should have to be 21 also to possess it. There’s breakdown in our system. We keep on trying to punish the people selling them, but we (sell to) adults. We don’t sell to underage people.”