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Guest Editorial: Young people don't realize risks of vaping

More young people are using e-cigarettes, JUUL and other forms of vaping than ever before.

A 2018 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Drug Administration found a dramatic increase in vaping among high schoolers — 75 percent are vaping more this year than last year. Use among middle schoolers increased nearly 50 percent.

The trouble is that nearly all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, a highly addictive chemical that can harm the developing adolescent brain because it's still developing until about age 25.

The Minnesota Department of Health points out that youth and young adult exposure to nicotine can disrupt attention and learning and that no amount of nicotine is safe for youth.

Why are young people taking the risk? A new study recently published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, sheds light on the issue. It underscores the need to better inform young people about the health dangers they face and how difficult it is to stop vaping even on a social basis once they start.

In a news release issued earlier this month, University of Minnesota researchers explained how the study was conducted: College students were asked about their beliefs regarding e-cigarettes. The researchers conducted four focus groups with college students who were not daily cigarette smokers. However, they had varied in terms of whether or not they had tried e-cigarettes.

Researchers asked the students questions in three groups:

• Their attitudes toward e-cigarettes, including how risky they think they are.

• What their friends and family think about them.

• Whether they can control their use of e-cigarettes.

The study found that participants believed that:

• Social use of e-cigarettes was very acceptable, but everyday use was not.

• Social use of e-cigarettes was not risky, while everyday use was seen as more risky.

• Their family likely wouldn't think that smoking e-cigarettes was a good idea, but wouldn't be as concerned as if they smoked cigarettes.

• Their friends would accept social use of e-cigarettes, but would look down on everyday use.

• Nicotine is addictive, but they still think they can control whether or not they get addicted. This shows, researchers noted, that young people have some misperceptions about addiction.

"While sharing e-cigarette flavors and showing off smoke tricks has become a part of the college social experience, these students stigmatized everyday use," said Sherri Jean Katz, lead researcher, an assistant professor in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Masonic Cancer Center member. "This dual perspective mirrors their perceptions of the health risks, wherein they see social use as not risky at all, but see more harm in everyday vaping. Still, e-cigarette use is seen as a choice and a hobby, not a habit, which is different from how they view traditional cigarettes."

The study, Katz said, suggests young adults would benefit from a health campaign designed to inform them about the risks associated with nicotine use and the nature of addiction.