AUSTIN (NEXSTAR) — Doctors are sounding the alarm on electronic cigarette usage among teens in America.
The nation’s top doctor is putting out the warning, especially when used by youth and adolescents. “We already know that e-cigarettes have the potential to cause lasting harm to the health of young users,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy wrote in a report released Thursday.
“E-Cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults,” the first report the surgeon general has ever issued on e-cigarettes, warns the increasingly popular trend is much more harmful than many realize. “As surgeon general and as a new father, I am urging all parents to take a stand against e-cigarette use by our nation’s young people,” Murthy said.
Among the recommendations from the surgeon general, the strongest one is the adoption of evidence-based health strategies to educate young people on the dangers associated with the use of e-cigarettes.
“It’s an alert from the surgeon general,” said Dr. Steve Kelder, the senior scientific editor of the report. A professor at University of Texas School of Public Health, Dr. Kelder, also authored the “CATCH My Breath Youth E-Cigarette Prevention Program.”
Based in Austin, the first-of-its-kind program answers the surgeon general’s call to educate kids about the dangers of e-cigarettes. “CATCH My Breath” provides teachers with in-class lesson plans on the harmful consequences of e-cigarettes. “What we really need to know is Nicotine is hazardous to kids,” said Kelder.
According to the report, most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, “a highly addictive drug that can damage normal development of the brain – a process that continues until about age 25.” Nicotine can damage the developing teen brain while leading to addiction and priming the brain for other addictions.
Megan Grayless, the “CATCH My Breath” program manager, said, “A lot of people think that e-cigarettes are safe and while the jury is still out for adults, we know for a fact that they are not safe for youth.”
The 2016 Texas Youth Tobacco Survey found more than 25 percent of middle and high school students in Texas have tried e-cigarettes. “Nicotine is found in the blood stream of users at the same level as regular cigarette use, so we know we have a problem,” Kelder explained.
Nationally, the number of underage teens who have tried e-cigarettes spiked by 22 percent within just one year. Kelder said, “What they get is nicotine delivered in a flavorful smoke and that’s highly appealing to kids.”
He pointed out that the majority of youth have reported that if e-cigarettes weren’t flavored they likely would not try them. Along with the harmful consequences of E-cigarettes, the “CATCH My Breath” curriculum also covers “deceptive advertising techniques used to market E-cigarettes,” said Grayless. “Then most importantly provides them with the tools and the skills to resist peer pressure to use e-cigarettes.”
Based on scientific evidence, the program consists of six 30-minute classroom lessons that are accompanied with teacher education, evaluation tools and materials for students to take home to parents. “The data shows the greatest spike in e-cigarette use among youth and adolescents starts in high school,” Grayless said that’s why “CATCH My Breath” targets middle school students.
The program launched nationally in August and is now taught at schools in 11 states, including Texas. Through a grant from the St. David’s Foundation, the “CATCH My Breath” is offered free of charge for five counties in central Texas: Travis, Bastrop, Williamson, Hays and Caldwell counties.
Round Rock ISD plans to implement the program in all the district’s middle schools starting this spring. “We hope to be catching on,” Grayless said. For school districts outside of those five counties, the new program costs $25 per year, per school.
Industry leaders argue e-cigarettes are far less harmful than traditional cigarettes. Older adults are more likely to report using e-cigarettes to wean themselves off conventional cigarettes, according to the surgeon general’s report.
Kelder said there is still so much doctors don’t know about e-cigarettes and the long-term impact they can have. “Up until six months ago we knew more about what was in dog food than what we know about what’s in an e-cigarette and what the vapor is that millions of kids are being exposed to every day in America,” said Kelder.