Health

Kentucky health leaders gathered Monday at a statewide summit on vaping and e-cigarettes called for state officials to ban flavors in these products to curb teen use. The move would be unprecedented – no other state has banned e-cigarette flavors.

“We think the state should seriously consider prohibiting the sale of flavored e-cigarettes,” said Ben Chandler, the president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.  “The FDA banned flavored cigarettes in 2009 because they appeal to kids. Today you saw evidence that flavored e-cigarettes also appeal to kids.”

Though vape pens are sometimes marketed as a way to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, there’s mounting evidence that teens take up vaping without ever smoking a cigarette. And teens who use e-cigarettes and other cigarette alternatives are nearly twice as likely to later smoke cigarettes as teens who never use those alternatives, according to a study released earlier this year.  A little more than 14 percent of Kentucky high schoolers reported smoking traditional cigarettes in 2017. About the same percent reported vaping.

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Kentucky Youth Advocates also recently conducted focus groups of 35 high school students in five Kentucky counties, including Jefferson County.

“Many of the students thought that they were engaging in harmless activities,” Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks said. “They really picked up that if e-cigs were designed to help you quit smoking, surely they themselves could not be dangerous.”

Catie Kelly, a student at Martha Collins High School in Shelby County, said she vaped an e-cigarette at a party after a friend told her the e-cig didn’t have any nicotine and had a good flavor.

“They think cigarettes are gross, so the flavors [in e-cigarettes] obviously are a main part of it,” Kelly said. “And coming from experience, I have actually used them, not thinking that they were bad for you.”

The health advocacy groups plan to push for a statewide smoke-free policy in public schools in the upcoming legislative session. About 57 percent of Kentucky public school students go to schools that already have one of these policies.

But even with smoke-free rules on the books, Eric Kennedy with the Kentucky School Board Association said enforcement can be a challenge. He said that’s in part due to the large numbers of kids who vape, and because parents don’t always see a problem with vaping.

“All different sorts of students are using them, including the cool kids. Sometimes when you get into these discipline matters, it can be pretty tough when you call the parents in and maybe the parent says, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s a big deal,’” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said there’s no statewide health curriculum that all schools teach about the emerging dangers of vaping. Instead, he said, most schools set their own curriculum.

“There is no explicit requirement that school districts or schools send out information that explicitly breaks down and discusses e cigarettes,” Kennedy said.

During next month’s Kentucky General Assembly, the health advocates said in addition to the smoke-free policy and ban on e-cigarette flavors, they’ll also push for adding an excise tax on e-cigarettes and vape pens. Last session, lawmakers approved a 50 cent tax hike to cigarettes sold in Kentucky.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.