Commentary: All I really need to know (about vaping) I learned from my college students

Commentary: All I really need to know (about vaping) I learned from my college students
May 19
12:13 2021

By Dr. Cynthia Williams Brown

Recently, my Winston-Salem State University physical education students completed an assignment on current issues in the field of health, wellness, and sports. As the president of the American Heart Association Board in the Triad, I decided to also give myself an “assignment” about the alarming trend of youth e-cigarette use. Thus making it a teachable moment and emphasizing that their assignment was not some “meaningless” exercise. There is always more to learn, and with the introduction of e-cigarettes and popularity among young people, I wanted to understand the risks better.

My area of research and community work is in health equity, more specifically, getting people to improve health behaviors as it relates to physical activity and eating. As my own “assignment” centered around the issue of vaping, I did what all scholars do, I began my learning pursuit with research. 

I decided to get my students’ thoughts, what they were seeing among their peers as related to vaping. They were enthused to provide both their personal views, experiences, and expertise on the subject. 

Consequently, my students confirmed my research and provided personal examples of what they were seeing first-hand in their community. They also provided their views and opinions in light of the fact that they are future physical education, sports, and wellness professionals. Subsequently, I found that “all I really need to know (about vaping) I learned from my college students”.

One student shared that one of her parents saw e-cigarettes as a viable alternative to smoking, a narrative widely propagated by the tobacco companies producing e-cigarettes. 

Another student, a student-athlete, is concerned about the uncertainty of how vaping will affect us in the long-term. Very good observation, however, we already know  that nicotine can harm adolescent brain development, and increases chances that a young person will also start using traditional cigarettes.  Still another student shared how he thinks some of his friends are addicted to their vaping habits. This fits with many years of research that shows that nicotine, within majority of e-cigarettes is highly addictive.

The most alarming finding, is that one student shared feedback from teachers she works with about the increased use of vaping among their students. The research shows that teen vaping is reaching epidemic proportions, with nearly 40% of 12th graders reporting having used a vaping device in the past year, and over 20% of 12th graders reported vaping in the past month. 

This led another student to chime in that she thinks that e-cigarettes are easily accessible to teens. Plus the “flavored” nature makes them more enticing to teens. The sad reality is many teens believe that vaping is less harmful than smoking. Also, e-cigarettes have a lower per-use cost than traditional cigarettes. 

When you compare my students’ position with the experts, they “hit the nail right on the head.” According to Dr. Laura Crotty Alexander, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who researches the long-term effects of e-cigarette use on health, “we are setting up this whole new generation of non-smokers to become addicted to nicotine.” This may very well reverse the progress that has been made in reducing youth tobacco use. 

My conclusion? This sounds eerily familiar. Vaping is on its way to becoming the next public health crisis. More alarmingly is that I agree with Dr. Elizabeth Knight, a family nurse practitioner, scientist, and educator at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland who says “failing to address an imminent public health crisis early and aggressively can lead to real harm for vulnerable populations.”  Therefore, as a health equity practitioner and researcher, I must sound the alarm! Dr. Knight goes on to caution that “waiting” for the “incontrovertible” evidence before acting is a grave mistake and that “intervening now is a chance to promote health equity.” Vaping is a public health issue, but it will quickly become a health equity issue I agree, but will add that for once in MY lifetime, we have an opportunity to get it right. There are established policy solutions that can help us avoid this potential public health crisis – this requires state investment in our evidence-based youth tobacco prevention programs, that help establish peer-to-peer education and media campaigns to reduce youth tobacco use. North Carolina has the chance to do something now. Our state lawmakers should invest $17 million for youth tobacco use in the state budget.

Cynthia Williams Brown, Ph.D., is chair & associate professor, Department of Health, Physical Education & Sport Studies, at Winston-Salem State University.

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