GREENFIELD — From a grade-school age, kids hear the slogans.
“Be smart. Don’t start.”
“You’re a fool if you think smoking is cool.”
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It’s an attitude anti-smoking and anti-tobacco groups have cultivated for years, Brandee Bastin said. For decades, she and activists like her have tried to teach kids the dangers smoking before they ever pick up the habit. How it cripples a person’s health, causes gum and tooth loss, respiratory diseases and even cancer.
But the introduction in recent years of e-cigarettes has all but destroyed those years of work, said Bastin, who leads the Hancock County Tobacco-Free Coalition. Surveys show vaping among the county’s teens outpaces the use of traditional cigarettes.
Now, the coalition and Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse (NASA), which supports anti-drug programming in Hancock County, have partnered to focus programming on e-cigarette use and vaping, especially among the county’s teens.
The organizations will in the coming year roll out programs at local high schools aimed at discouraging students from using electronic cigarettes and similar products. The decision comes after three years of NASA-administered surveys showed e-cigarettes were among the most-used substances by county youth.
The surveys show 17.5 percent of the class of 2017 admitted to vaping — higher than the state average of 10.5 percent.
Of those same students, 11.8 percent admitted to using traditional cigarettes.
Alcohol was the only substance the class of 2017 admitted to using more often than e-cigarettes: 25.8 percent of last year’s seniors admitted in drinking in the 30 days prior to the survey being administered.
It’s the third year in a row the surveys have shown such results, said Tim Retherford, executive director of NASA: 18.4 percent of the class of 2015 admitted to vaping; and that rose to 22.1 percent of the class of 2016 — double the percentage of students using traditional cigarettes and higher than alcohol use.
For those classes, too, about 11 percent admitted to smoking traditional cigarettes.
But it’s not just the county’s older students who admit to vaping, Retherford said.
Survey results show just under 4 percent of the county’s seventh-graders and 6.6 percent of the county’s eighth-graders in 2017 admitted to vaping. The state average for middle schools admitting to e-cigarette use is 2.8 percent, records show.
Less than 1 percent of those seventh-graders and 3 percent of those eighth-graders said they used traditional cigarettes.
Local leaders said they’re worried the trend will continue if kids view vaping as a safe alternative to smoking.
Indiana is one of a handful of states that has made e-cigarette sales to minors illegal, but those devices still find their way into young hands. Bastin blames it on the marketing for e-cigarettes, which often portrays the products as a fashionable and safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, she said.
E-cigarettes come in brightly colored cartridges and the vapors users inhale come in wide range of flavors, making them even more appealing to teens, she said.
But the effects of vaping are still relatively unknown, and the juices have only been federally-regulated since mid 2016, so the devices should be treated with caution, Bastin said.
In her eyes, vaping is just as bad as traditional smoking because the user is taking an unknown substance into their lungs. When anti-smoking groups began organizing about 15 years ago, the average smoking rate among teens was upwards of 29 percent; and hard work went into cutting that statistic nearly in half, Bastin said.
The stats of teen vaping are disheartening, she said. It feels like all the work has been undone.
“There is this belief that it’s OK and safe because it’s not tobacco,” Bastin said. “We’re just begin to learn (about e-cigarettes). What we don’t want to see is a new generation trying to conquer just another nicotine … product.”
In addition to helping coordinate the presentations at local schools, NASA has added an anti-vaping campaign to the strategic plan, Retherford said.
The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute requires NASA and organizations like it around the state to submit comprehensive plans that name substance-related problems in their communities and outline what the group’s leaders will do to address the issue.
While the organization doesn’t survey adults, the teen statics offer some insight on what substances are being used and how regularly countywide, Retherford said. So after seeing the stats on teens, NASA’s board decided it would be best to try to combat use across all age groups, as much as possible.
This will include adding anti-vaping pamphlets to the information NASA hands out a county events, like the 4-H fair and annual Riley Festival.
Like Bastin, he believes vaping shouldn’t be looked at as an alternative to smoking. In the end, it’s just another way to use and abuse nicotine, he said.
“If you’re addicted to nicotine, you’re addicted to nicotine no matter how you’re taking it in — whether you’re smoking it or chewing it or vaping,” Retherford said.