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Jay Evensen: Vaping and anxiety: Twin plagues for modern teenagers

FILE - In this April 16, 2019 file photo, a woman exhales while vaping from a Juul pen e-cigarette in Vancouver, Wash. Schools have been wrestling with how to balance discipline with treatment in their response to the soaring numbers of vaping students.
FILE - In this April 16, 2019 file photo, a woman exhales while vaping from a Juul pen e-cigarette in Vancouver, Wash. Schools have been wrestling with how to balance discipline with treatment in their response to the soaring numbers of vaping students.
Craig Mitchelldyer, Associated Press

The Food and Drug Administration has some new TV ads showing street magician Julius Dein using tricks to convince teenagers not to smoke electronic cigarettes. They might work, if kids watched TV.

This isn’t the early 1970s, when Washington first took cigarette ads off TV and radio. Today’s teens see ads on YouTube and impatiently wait the requisite five seconds to dismiss them. They communicate on social media and, like so many of the adults around them, don’t pay much attention to news stories.

I’ve been watching the modern plague of “vaping,” as e-cigarette usage is called, take hold of some teenagers I know. Many of them are caught in a vortex that includes anxiety and depression, and they turn to vaping for a calming nicotine high without, they believe, all the harmful effects of traditional cigarettes.

If you’ve dealt with an immature mind that believes this, you know how difficult it can be to convince that person otherwise.

The National Institutes of Health reports that one-third of children between 13 and 18 years of age suffers from an anxiety disorder today, and that the percentage has been on the rise. I’ve seen this firsthand, as well. This disorder can be debilitative, literally making it difficult for the child to move or function normally. No one seems to know why this is happening.

Naturally, many who suffer from this look for ways to self-medicate. E-cigarettes came along at an unfortunately opportune time for many of them. Despite claims from vaping manufacturers that the products exist solely to help adults wean themselves off cigarettes, their variety of sweet flavors is especially enticing to teenagers. Few people begin smoking anything after age 21.

And a teenager with anxiety who believes vaping helps can be a loyal customer, indeed.

A “monitoring the future” survey late last year found 37% of high school seniors admitted to vaping during the past year, an all-time high.

It’s too bad more of those kids don’t pay attention to the news. If they did, they might have seen the Deseret News story Tuesday about a press conference held by doctors at the University of Utah Hospital to talk about their recent experiences with vapers.

Aubree Butterfield at her parents home in Brigham City talks about what has happened to her after vaping. Aubree joined doctors at the University of Utah Hospital talking about the dangers of vaping, at a press conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug
Aubree Butterfield at her parents home in Brigham City talks about what has happened to her after vaping. Aubree joined doctors at the University of Utah Hospital talking about the dangers of vaping, at a press conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019.
Scott G Winterton

Their examples included 25-year-old Aubree Butterfield, who came in with symptoms similar to pneumonia, and with constant vomiting, as well as Alexander Mitchell, who had similar symptoms and ended up being flown to University Hospital and placed on life support for five days. Today he needs a cane for balance.

Read more: 'What Utah doctors are saying about vaping'

The point was to explain that while e-cigarettes are not as harmful as regular cigarettes, they are indeed harmful. More terrifying than that, “… we just don’t have a good sense of what exactly in these vaping products are causing these illnesses,” said Sean Maddock, a fellow at the hospital’s Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine program.

Meanwhile, a recent study published by Science Daily linked vaping to increased risks for coronary artery disease, circulatory problems, depression, anxiety and other emotional problems.

While the cigarette industry seems to be rising from the ashes and parading through the streets like a zombie, the FDA has been slow to react. It has taken some recent steps, including the imposition of restrictions on the sales of sweetened liquids for the devices and attempts to stop sales to minors. The FDA’s website says it issued more than 3,950 warning letters and levied more than 665 fines to stores that sold to minors during a 12-month period ending in April.

The site also talks about strategies to help young people stop using the products, but these haven’t reached the kids I know, nor is there much talk about tackling the apparently often interlaced factors of anxiety and depression.

Back in December of 1972, nearly a year after the federal government outlawed cigarette ads on TV and radio, United Press International reported that the move had been a failure. The American Cancer Society said cigarette smoking actually had increased that year, despite the lack of commercials.

We know now this declaration was premature, but cigarette smoking did not become socially unacceptable overnight. It took years of warnings, lawsuits, bad publicity and medical studies to change the culture.

Admittedly, this is a difficult problem because vaping may have some positive effects on smokers trying to quit. But those adults are a separate sort of clientele than the teenagers who find it so attractive.

Reversing this new, emerging youth culture will be hard, but we have no choice but to try. It will take more than a magician on TV, however, to win.