COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ending youth vaping has remained a priority for the American Lung Association the past few years, as health officials have identified teenagers’ use of e-cigarettes as an epidemic and a public-health crisis.
But since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the national nonprofit group has doubled down on its efforts because e-cigarette users are at a greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Plus, new research shows that roughly 30% of Ohio high school students vaped in 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last week the lung association rolled out a “robust plan” to end youth vaping, said Brittany Sinzinger, the senior manager of development for the American Lung Association in Ohio.
“The number of middle-school and high-school students who are using e-cigarettes has now reached 5.4 million,” Sinzinger said. “We want to help schools navigate this public-health emergency.”
The association has created a toolkit of sorts for parents, schools and communities to raise awareness of teens’ use of e-cigarettes, offer tips on how to talk to children about the harmful effects, and provide cessation strategies aimed at teens.
The plan is four-pronged and encompasses education, advocacy and research.
Besides targeting the education systems through its Vape-Free Schools Initiative, the association also has launched a public-awareness ad campaign, “Get Your Head Out of the Cloud,” that is designed to alert parents to the problem. Parents also can find resources at www.talkaboutvaping.org.
The American Lung Association will continue to advocate for states to eliminate flavored tobacco products and increase funding for prevention as part of its new plan, while also committing $2 million toward research to understand the effects of vaping on developing lungs.
Sinzinger, who works closely with central Ohio schools, said the Vape-Free initiative includes the Indepth program, which offers schools an alternative recourse when a student is caught vaping.
“Typically what happens is a student is suspended,” she said. “We don’t want that. We want them to be educated.”
Indepth is a series of courses that students can take instead that provide intervention and prevention.
“We give them stress-relieving activities to do instead of vaping,” Sinzinger said. “What we’ve learned in talking to students is that many of the kids who vape are doing it because of stress-related reasons.”
Adopting such a program allows school officials to say that they recognize that addressing vaping is important, Sinzinger said.
Jon Kelley, a teaching and learning coach with Delaware City Schools who has had Sinzinger speak to his students, said he’s grateful that the lung association is tackling this. Vaping is just as big a problem in Delaware schools as it is nationwide, he said.
“When you have an outside resource saying something, it validates what you’re trying to do,” he said. “It’s not just Mr. Kelley saying, ‘Don’t do this.’”
The association also has established a pilot program involving a junior leadership board made up of teens who want to fight vaping.
One member is Grace-Anne Larschied of Lima. Although the 16-year-old has never vaped, her friends have, and she wants them to understand how it can devastate the lungs.
In early 2017, Grace-Anne almost died from bacterial pneumonia, and she still feels effects.
“I have what someone vaping for six months or a year could have,” said Grace-Anne, whose lungs are significantly scarred. “That’s why I’m doing this. I didn’t have a choice, but people who vape do have a choice.”
She will continue to speak in classrooms across the state, as she has the past few years, but her new role will allow her to provide insight to decision-makers on how to combat vaping.
“It’s scary there are so many unknowns with vaping,” she said. “Kids are taking their lungs for granted — you don’t have to tell yourself to breathe.”