While cigarette use has steadily declined over the years, another form of nicotine spread like wildfire throughout 2018, particularly among teenagers. 

E-cigarette use among high school students jumped nationally 78 percent from 2017 to 2018 thanks to their inconspicuous designs, appealing flavors and easier-to-conceal smell. Michael Shepherd, the healthy living program coordinator for Carter County, said research is still lagging behind the trend. 

“With cigarette use we know the facts of it, we know it’s harmful,” Shepherd said. “That’s definitely needed with e-cigarettes.” 

Shepherd said e-cigarettes contain fewer toxic chemicals than the 7,000-odd ones found in traditional cigarettes, but the devices still pose their own health risks. 

“According to the CDC, the aerosol users breathe can contain harmful substances like nicotine, particles, cancer-causing chemicals and heavy metals like nickel, tin and lead,” Shepherd said. “You know, it’s one of those things that just because it’s so new, we don’t fully understand what kind of harmful effects it can have.” 

Shepherd said he’s been observing the trend for a long time. 1.5 million more students used the devices in 2018 than in the previous year. 

“Some youth just don’t see these products as having harmful effects,” Shepherd said. “Some don’t realize that most e-cigarettes contain nicotine. It’s becoming an epidemic.” 

E-cigarettes come in many different forms, some more conspicuous than others. Some look like traditional cigarettes, cigars or pipes, while others can be mistaken for thumb drives, pens or electronics. He said for that reason, it’s particularly important to inform schools and parents of all the forms the devices can take. 

“Things like that can go a long way,” Shepherd said.   

Shepherd said he thinks, people initially saw e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking altogether. Now however, he said studies have shown people are more likely to use the devices to complement other tobacco use, and the flavorings commonly used in vape oil have made them that much more popular among teenagers. 

“It tastes good, you’re only blowing aerosol, and it’s harder to detect,” Shepherd said. “It’s easier to get away with that than a combustible cigarette, with the smell and the flame.” 

The devices can be easily ordered online. Failing that, an older friend or relative can buy them, much like traditional cigarettes. 

“I have heard reports that some e-cigarettes have labels that say ‘contains no nicotine,’ but that isn’t always the case,” Shepherd said. “They have found some that have traces. Since it’s a relatively new product, there’s a lot of things still unknown about it.”

Just like traditional forms of tobacco, the nicotine in e-cigarettes directly impacts teenagers’ developing brains. He said helping teenagers understand longterm use could effect them in the future is key to preventing them from becoming habitual smokers. 

Shepherd works with schools in Carter County to enforce tobacco free campuses. That extends to football games and other events that are harder to monitor, where parents may also smoke or vape. 

“Enforcement is one of the bigger things they seek help with, because their concern is ‘how can we be everywhere at once?’,” Shepherd said. “As tobacco use declines, it’s becoming less of the norm.” 

He said educating parents, students and schools as much as possible is the only way forward. 

“Students are clever,” Shepherd said. “We have to gain an understanding of where they’re at and how they’re using these and try to keep up.”