The 2015 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey data shows we have both reason to celebrate and cause for concern about the health risk behaviors of our region’s youth.

The survey, a collaboration between the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Department of Education, was first administered in 2009 and is offered in February of odd-numbered years. One of its purposes is to quantify the health-related behaviors and attitudes of fifth- through 12th-graders by direct student survey. Students are asked about such topics as asthma, depression, diabetes, nutrition, physical activity, weight, and substance use, among others.

The 2015 data help our educators, families, health and human services professionals, community members and others know what is going well among our youth. We can celebrate the fact that alcohol and prescription drug use are decreasing. We can also commend families for talking and having clear rules, and applaud our schools for being safe and supportive.

The data also provide us with important early clues about disquieting trends. Two trends in particular are worth noting so that we can begin to address them before they expand into larger health and well-being difficulties for our young people.

The first is vaping. Vaping is the inhalation and exhalation of vaporized nicotine using any of these devices. The use of e-cigarettes, vape pens, and e-hookahs for vaping is on the rise among teens.

According to the CDC, while using these devices may seem harmless because the nicotine is not smoked, their use poses some risks similar to those associated with smoking. The devices deliver nicotine, which is highly addictive and harmful to adolescent brain development. Nicotine use during adolescence can disrupt the formation of brain circuits that control attention, learning and susceptibility to addiction.


There are no studies on the health effects of long-term use, but comparable to cigarettes, these devices deliver nicotine that is inhaled into the lungs. In addition, some of the products used in the devices can contain heavy metals, ultrafine particulate and cancer-causing agents. They can also contain propylene glycol or glycerin and flavorings, and the health effects of inhaling these substances are currently unknown.

The second bad trend relates to marijuana.

Youth think that alcohol poses a greater risk of harm than marijuana. In fact, 2 out of 3 high school students in southern Kennebec County do not see any risk of harm from marijuana. This perception may come in part from Maine’s legalization of marijuana for medical use, and the growing possibility of legalization for adult recreational use as well.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana affects brain development. The adolescent brain is still developing, and when marijuana use begins during adolescence, the drug may reduce thinking, memory and learning, and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions. In addition, a growing number of studies show regular marijuana use — once a week or more — actually changes the structure of the developing brain.

Because they are emerging issues, vaping and marijuana have few evidence-based strategies for prevention. That’s why Healthy Communities of the Capital Area (HCCA) — in alignment with our core mission of convening and supporting individuals, organizations, and communities to collaborate on public health and quality of life issues — has just started a project to engage youth. Our region’s young people are developing interview questions for their peers and the adults in their lives to identify misconceptions, and drafting relevant prevention messages.

Over the past few months, the group has already provided a range of educational, audience-specific presentations to students, school bus drivers, teachers, counselors and school board members to increase knowledge and awareness of the issues. It has is also available to assist schools, businesses and municipalities to consider whether their policies and practices are designed to protect youth.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has contracted directly with HCCA and 26 other local coalitions over the past 15 years to implement strategies that have been instrumental in the remarkable decreases in youth tobacco, alcohol and prescription drug misuse. We hope that local collaboration and implementation will allow these evidence-based and innovative strategies to continue.

Yes, we’ve already got a lot to be vigilant about as far as the health and well-being of our youth are concerned, but by addressing these troubling trends early on, we may be able to prevent them from becoming problems. Wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate the problems that our youth don’t have because we paid attention in time?

Joanne E. A. Joy is executive director of Healthy Communities of the Capital Area (HCCA), which is the Healthy Maine Partnership for Southern Kennebec County and the home of the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention.

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