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Utah has made a big dent in teen vaping in the last 4 years

A variety of flavored vapes on the shelves at a Salt Lake City vape shop, Nov. 8, 2023
Saige Miller
A variety of flavored vapes on the shelves at a Salt Lake City vape shop, Nov. 8, 2023

The percentage of teens who say they vape in Utah has dropped by nearly half in the last few years, and experts say everything from better anti-vape marketing to the COVID-19 pandemic could be at play.

New findings from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services show a decline from a high of 12.4% of teens in 8th, 10th and 12th grade who vape in 2019 to 7.4% in 2023.

“Our state has made great progress in limiting access to vape products for youth,” said Tobacco Prevention and Control Program manager Braden Ainsworth. “However, vaping continues to be a concern in our schools and families.”

The data comes on the heels of similar nationwide trends observed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which showed a decrease in vaping among middle and high school students of 14.1% to 10% from 2022 to 2023.

The state health department largely attributes the decline to effective anti-vaping marketing and more conversations about drugs between parents, schools and children.

But some health experts said another factor could have also made a difference in the last few years.

“We did see a downtick during COVID,” said Intermountain Health pulmonary specialist Dr. Dixie Harris. “When the schools were closed, more kids were at home. There was less vaping. Part of it is they had less access.”

With more time spent at home during the early years of the pandemic, teens had fewer opportunities to vape and a harder time hiding it from their parents.

However, tracking youth can be a challenge since retail sales aren’t a reliable metric when vaping is illegal for anyone under 21 in Utah.

To get around this, health officials turned to the Utah Student Health and Risk Prevention survey. The annual survey asks about a range of behavioral and health questions and all answers are provided anonymously.

Although the data was gathered through a voluntary survey, the health department is confident in the numbers.

“You can't always guarantee that people will report honestly, but it does help that it's anonymous and that actually shows us good data,” said Tobacco Prevention and Control Program spokesperson Aubri Devashrayee. “It is definitely by far the most accurate survey that we have out on this. There isn't really anything else like it in the state besides just conjecture.”

E-cigarettes and other vaping products are considered unsafe for children by the CDC. Most contain nicotine, which is highly addictive.

“Nicotine salts are used for vaping and it actually creates a higher absorption, better absorption than cigarettes,” said Harris. “It's more effective as a nicotine delivery device.”

The long-term health risks of vaping are still unknown, but Harris said the habit has been linked to greater risks of respiratory disease. Vaping was also linked to a string of lung injuries in 2019.

“Nothing should go into your lungs other than clean, healthy air,” Harris said. “[When you vape,] you're putting materials in your lungs, you're putting chemicals in your lungs that we don't necessarily know all the side effects of.”

Even with the decline in use, the health department warns that children are still vulnerable to tobacco industry marketing tactics.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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