Cigarette smoking by N.C. middle school and high school students has slightly dropped the past two years, but use of other tobacco products – including electronic cigarettes – has grown at a pace alarming to Mecklenburg County’s health director.
Since 2011, cigarette smoking among middle schoolers and high schoolers had dropped about 2 percent, but use of “emerging tobacco products” such as e-cigarettes, hookahs and flavored cigarettes had grown nearly fourfold, according to the 2013 N.C. Youth Tobacco Survey released Friday.
The outcomes are based on interviews last year with 3,927 middle schoolers and 4,092 high school students. The survey is conducted every two years.
“The numbers are alarming,” said Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia. “What’s very concerning is that these products are being marketed to kids. They’ve got green apple-flavored e-cigarettes and multiple berry-flavored cigarettes. They’re also electronic gadgets, and kids like electronic gadgets. It’s how they’re marketing tobacco products, and from the numbers it shows they are doing an effective job of it.”
Cigarette smoking has been on the decline since 1999, the survey shows. That year, 31.6 percent of students in high school said they smoked cigarettes; last year it was 13.5 percent.
However, overall tobacco use among high school students jumped from 25.8 percent in 2011 to nearly 30 percent last year, the survey shows. Students wanting to stop smoking declined from 45 percent to 39 percent. And 3 in 10 North Carolina high school students use tobacco products.
“That’s a lot of kids,” Plescia said. “Kids think these products are harmless and cool. They’re not. We don’t want kids using any type of tobacco product.”
State legislators labeled e-cigarettes as a tobacco product and decreed it a class 2 misdemeanor to sell them to anyone under 18. The science on whether alternative tobacco products are harmful is inconclusive.
John Young, manager of Charlotte Vapes in University City, said the shop doesn’t sell its electronic cigarettes and juices to anyone under 18. He said the devices have been used by smokers to kick a nicotine habit.
“I know multiple people who have gone from a higher nicotine to zero nicotine,” Young said.
For several months, Plescia has been pushing smoking bans outside government buildings in Mecklenburg and a ban on all tobacco use at county parks, greenways and golf courses.
Last week, County Manager Dena Diorio announced that golf courses would be exempt from ordinances that county commissioners will consider, likely at their Oct. 21 meeting.
“The survey shows why we need to take action now,” Plescia said. “We see the trends going in the wrong direction, particularly among kids.”
He said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is doing what it can to curb use, instituting campuswide smoking bans.
Plescia is also in the process of hiring a youth engagement coordinator who will go into schools and youth groups to preach the dangers of tobacco use and other activities.
“Ninety percent of adults who smoke say they got started before age 18,” he said. “Once you get started, it’s a hard habit to kick.”