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U.S. surgeon general calls juvenile use of e-cigarettes an epidemic

A product designed to curb adult smokers’ use of traditional cigarettes has resulted in “epidemic” numbers of juvenile electronic cigarette use, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said.

E-cigarette companies such as Juul, Blu and Vuse market their products as convenient, ash-free devices that can help customers kick their tobacco habits. Their fruity flavors and discreet designs, however, have been criticized as appealing to minors.

On Tuesday, Adams declared the recent spike in underage use of e-cigarettes an epidemic. The surgeon general cited research that nicotine and other chemicals found in the products can affect minors’ developing brains and lead to addiction.

“In recent years, the tobacco product landscape has evolved to include a diverse array of new products, including electronic products such as e-cigarettes – products that are easily concealed that most parents would not even recognize as a device that their young people could use to consume nicotine,” Adams said at a news conference.

In 2018, 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students reported using e-cigarettes, according to the surgeon general’s advisory.

Prairie Grove School District 46 has taken its own steps to prevent students from bringing tobacco on campus.

The district recently received a school safety grant from Soter Technologies to help deter on-campus bullying and e-cigarette use. Officials ordered 10 sensors capable of detecting loud noises and chemicals released from vaping or smoking. When an anomaly is detected, the sensor will send a notification to one or more school officials’ computers or smartphones to alert them.

District 46 plans to install the sensors in select restrooms and locker rooms, but the devices are in high demand and have yet to arrive, chief school business official Kevin Werner said.

“They’re on back order. We expect to have those installed before the end of the school year,” he said Tuesday.

District 46 isn’t alone in its effort to combat student e-cigarette use. Other schools throughout the county – including in Huntley School District 158, Woodstock School District 200 and Community High School District 155 – also have explored ways to deter students from using nicotine.

Misconceptions that e-cigarettes are risk-free alternatives to standard cigarettes likely contribute to their use by minors, Adams said.

“Although e-cigs generally contain fewer toxicants and combustible tobacco products, they can expose users to harmful chemicals in addition to nicotine,” he said. “Less harm does not mean harmless.”

How kids get their hands on e-cigarettes varies. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued more than 1,300 warning letters and fines this summer to retailers that sold e-cigarette products to minors during a nationwide, undercover blitz of storefronts and online sellers.

Six gas stations and smoke shops in Crystal Lake, Woodstock and Harvard were among the retailers that received warnings, FDA data show.

Although companies such as Blu, Vuse and Juul can help adult smokers curb their nicotine consumption, the prevalence of e-cigarette use increased 78 percent among high school students during the past year, Adams said.

One particular brand of e-cigarettes has been the target of criticism that accuses the tobacco industry of using the electronic designs to market its products to children.

Critics have compared Juul products’ small, discreet appearances to a USB – a tool that wouldn’t be uncommon for a school-aged child to have tucked in his or her backpack or locker. Now the surgeon general is calling for “aggressive steps” to combat underage use of nicotine.

“The bad news is that e-cigarette use has become an epidemic among our nation’s young people. However, the good news is that we know what works to effectively protect our kids from all forms of tobacco product use, including e-cigarettes,” Adams said. “We must now apply these strategies to e-cigarettes, including USB flash drive-shaped products such as Juul.”

In an effort to circumvent the sale of Juul products to young people, the company has discontinued its sale of mango, fruit, creme and cucumber-flavored pods in the more than 90,000 retailers that sell Juul products, according to the company’s website.

As of Nov. 13, the flavors only are available through Juul’s website, which has added security measures to prevent sales to underage users.

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