OGDEN — It can happen in school bathrooms, outside on school grounds, in hidden corners that get little traffic from students and school staff.
Sometimes students even vape on the sly in classrooms, said David Burt, student services coordinator for the Weber School District.
Wherever it happens, underage vaping by Weber County teens is a big concern for school officials and Weber-Morgan Health Department representatives. Indeed, these days it rivals traditional cigarette smoking as a worry for those tasked with keeping kids from using illicit and illegal substances.
“Utah kids are smoking less and vaping more,” said Kristi Jones, community health specialist for the Weber-Morgan Health Department, which covers Weber and Morgan counties. “We don’t talk much about tobacco anymore. We talk about e-cigarettes.”
She and Burt addressed a gathering on Tuesday on the subject organized by the Weber County League of Women Voters. But don’t just take their word that it’s a trend and issue of note.
According to data compiled by the Utah Department of Health, 15 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed in 2017 within the confines of the Weber-Morgan Health District, reported they vaped or used electronic cigarettes. That’s top among the department’s 13 health districts across the state, with the Salt Lake County Health District reporting the second-highest use rate, 13.7 percent of those surveyed.
By comparison, just 3.3 percent of students in 2017 in Weber and Morgan counties reported they had smoked traditional cigarettes in the 30 days prior to being surveyed, the measure of use, according to the data.
“It’s techie. It’s the new cool thing to do,” said Jones, with dismay. Some vaping devices are battery powered while one of the more popular electronic cigarette devices, made by JUUL Labs, can be charged via a USB port on a computer.
Why Weber County ranks so high on underage vaping is a matter of speculation. Burt says it might be a higher concentration of stores that sell vaping and electronic cigarette supplies compared to other parts of Utah. Whatever the cause, it’s spurred anti-vape advocates here to redouble their efforts to fight underage use. The legal age to use both tobacco and electronic cigarettes in Utah is 19, though a pair of Utah cities have raised the legal age in their confines to 21.
Nicotine is addictive and vaping the substance can lead to use of cancer-causing tobacco products, for one thing, Jones warns. Moreover, nicotine use can adversely impact brain development among teens while longer-term impacts of vaping simply aren’t yet fully known.
Of particular concern in trying to fight teen use are the many fruity and sugary flavors of electronic cigarettes, and the fact that vaping isn’t as harsh as smoking traditional cigarettes. “When the kids are smoking this, it doesn’t irritate their throat as much,” Jones said.
Similarly, Bryce Sherwood, health promotion supervisor for the Weber-Morgan Health Department and also a participant in Tuesday’s meeting, noted the seemingly innocuous odor vaping gives off. “The kids smell like Froot Loops,” he said, referencing the sugary breakfast cereal.
Even so, the nicotine concentration when vaping, depending on the juice used, can be as high or higher as in cigarettes made of tobacco.
Burt displayed numerous vaping devices confiscated from Weber School District students. Kids try to use electronic cigarettes all around schools, he said, and some devices are so compact and produce so little vapor that students have even used them in classrooms while teachers’ heads are turned.
The anti-vape advocates get the word out through student groups, compliance checks at stores that sell electronic smoking materials and more. Burt suspects public service announcements warning about vaping may be coming to television, similar to ads meant to prevent underage drinking.
“It’s coming. I can tell you that, it’s coming,” he said.
Even so, vaping advocates tout its benefits relative to tobacco use. And they are passionate about it.
“You get way more chemicals by a combustible cigarette than you do with vaping,” said Brock Lierd, who helps run Blue Moon Vapors in Ogden.
Many customers, he added, are smokers cutting back, even trying to buck nicotine altogether. And he, for one, is adamant about checking identification, not selling to minors who come in the store.
“We have a passion for it,” he said.