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Youth vaping rates keep rising in Hawaii

More Hawaii high school students are trying vaping and getting hooked, with the rate of daily vaping more than doubling over two years, while use of alcohol and cigarettes is dropping.

Statewide, a whopping 30.6% of public high school students said in 2019 they had vaped at least once in the past 30 days, up from 25.5% in 2017. The national rate was even higher at 32.7% in 2019. Meanwhile, the number of teens vaping every day in Hawaii spiked to 7.9% from 3.5% over those two years.

“These are not benign products,” said Lola Irvin, administrator for the Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Division of the state Health Department. “They are inhaling the flavorants, the chemicals, the nicotine, the alcohol and the vegetable oils — that’s what they are putting into their lungs.”

And there are added risks, given the coronavirus pandemic.

“There have been studies done that youth who report vaping are five to seven times more likely to have tested positive for COVID-19, so we’re really concerned about their health,” she added.

The Health Department on Tuesday announced the release of results from the Hawaii Youth Risk Behavior Survey, with data for each Hawaii county as well as the state, and by grade level and ethnicity.

The federal survey takes place every two years and is overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The full data release was delayed in part because health officials have been responding to COVID-19.

In Hawaii the survey is conducted only at public schools. Nationally, it takes place at public and private schools, and those responses are combined for the U.S. averages. More than 12,000 local students took the survey in 2019.

The questionnaire, taken anonymously, covers a wide array of topics, including use of illicit substances, bullying, violence, dietary habits and physical inactivity.

Along with the rise in vaping, the survey found a notable increase in feelings of hopelessness among teenagers in Hawaii, even before the novel coronavirus struck and isolated many of them at home.

Nearly 35% of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost daily for two weeks or more in a row in 2019, to the point where they stopped doing some of their usual activities. That was a jump from the nearly 30% who reported feeling that way in 2017. Nationally, the figure rose even higher, to 36.7% in 2019.

More than half of the Hawaii teens who reported such symptoms in 2019 said they “never or rarely” got the help they needed, and nearly 17% said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year.

One bright spot in the survey data was a small decline in electronic bullying reported in Hawaii. While nationally, 15.7% of students reported being cyberbullied in 2019, in Hawaii the rate was 13.1%, down from 14.6% in 2017.

The survey showed that physical fighting is less common among Hawaii high school students than nationally, with 16.7% reporting having been in such a fight in the past year, compared with 21.9% nationally.

And fewer teens in Hawaii report engaging in sexual activity. Nationally, 27.4% of high school students in 2019 said they had sexual intercourse in the past three months, compared with 17.6% in Hawaii. The rate in the islands had dropped from 19.2% in 2017.

Alcohol use has fallen substantially among teens in the islands. Altogether, 20.4% of high schoolers reported having at least one drink of alcohol in the past 30 days in 2019, down from 24.5% in 2017.

Traditional tobacco use has also followed a downward trend, with just 5% of Hawaii high school students having smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days, compared with 8% in 2017 and 15% a decade ago.

But vaping, which is largely unregulated, has soared, especially on the neighbor islands. The ratio of students using e-cigarettes at least once in the last 30 days was 36.4% on Maui, followed by 35.9% for Kauai, 35.4% for Hawaii County and 28% in Honolulu County.

Numerous bills have been proposed in recent years at the Legislature to ban flavored vape products or to regulate and tax electronic cigarettes the same way that tobacco products are, but they have failed to become law.

“We are working on it,” Irvin said. “Like we did with successful cigarette policies, we know that increasing the price works, banning flavors works and not allowing online shipping and handling works.”

“All that is already available as protection for youth with combustible cigarettes, but it’s not available for e-cigarettes,” she said.

One bill still alive this year, SB 1147, would include e-liquid and electronic smoking devices within the definition of “tobacco products.”

A new campaign, escapethevapehi.com, aims to build on previous youth-involved efforts such as 808novape. Teens also may call the Hawaii Tobacco Quit Line at any time (800-QUIT-NOW or hawaiiquitline.org). A “My Life, My Quit” program offers a text-based service with customized coaching and incentives.

Susan Essoyan/Star Advertiser