The number of Maine high school students who use e-cigarettes has nearly doubled in the last two years, a trend that has prompted the governor and other state officials to call for more education on the public health risks associated with vaping.

The 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, released Friday by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that 28.7 percent of high school students in Maine used e-cigarettes, also called vaping, within a 30-day period last spring, up from 15.3 percent in 2017.

The number of high school students who reported having tried vaping also grew – up to 45 percent from 33.2 percent in 2017.

The same trend holds true for middle school students. The survey, based on feedback from 54,750 middle and high school students in 288 Maine schools, found the number of middle school students who use e-cigarettes rose from 3.8 percent to 7 percent and the number who have tried e-cigarettes rose from 10.4 percent to 16.3 percent.

“Vaping poses a serious risk to the health of young people across Maine, and as this disturbing data shows, far too many are drawn in by the false allure of e-cigarettes,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a news release. “Young people know that smoking cigarettes is dangerous to their health. Now, it is important they understand that vaping is also dangerous.”

Mills said her administration, through the Maine CDC, will launch a new education and prevention campaign in 2020 that will speak directly to young people through social media, YouTube, television and radio to warn them about the risks and dangers associated with using e-cigarettes.

Mills also said she will move to eliminate a provision in state law that allows some people under age 21 to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. Maine raised the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21 in 2018, but currently those who turned 18 as of July 1, 2018, are grandfathered in.

The Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey is a biennial survey of middle and high school students conducted by the CDC in conjunction with the Maine Department of Education.

Its findings also align with the most recent data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey, which shows that 27.5 percent of high school students throughout the United States report having used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days, an increase from 11.7 percent in 2017.

Nationally, eight states have banned e-cigarettes, battery operated devices that emit doses of vaporized nicotine. The industry also has faced backlash for promoting flavored tobacco products that appeal to young people with flavors like chocolate, fruit and other sweets.

Friday’s findings on vaping prompted reaction from government and health officials around Maine, including the Maine Public Health Association and American Lung Association, both of which called for more action to address the use of e-cigarettes by teenagers.

Pender Makin, the commissioner of education, said the data collected from the survey is “alarming” and schools need to work together to ensure children and young adults are able to make healthy choices.

“Under Governor Mills’ leadership, the Department of Education will continue to work with the CDC, parents, school officials and the Legislature to protect the health and safety of Maine students,” Makin said in a statement.

“We are concerned about this increase, which really underscores the fact that what we’ve seen nationwide is also occurring in Maine,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC. “A significant number of young people are vaping. The health risks are wide and varied, and my message to all people, especially young people, when it comes to vaping is they shouldn’t do it.”

Around the country there have been more than 2,000 cases of severe lung illnesses associated with vaping, including eight in Maine, Shah said.

He said there is a perception, especially among young people, that vaping is harmless and it’s “just water vapor.”

“The reality is it’s not just water vapor,” he said. “It’s an aerosol that can contain a number of toxic substances.”

The increase in vaping reported by students comes shortly after a new state law took effect in September banning vaping on school property.

Still, some students interviewed Friday said many of their peers continue to vape at school despite the new law.

“People do it in school a lot,” said Jade Wu, a senior at Gorham High School. “I’ll go to the bathroom a bunch of times and people will just be hanging out there vaping, which is kind of messed up because it’s school.”

School officials Friday also acknowledged vaping is a problem and said they have seen an increase in use among students.

In Portland, Superintendent Xavier Botana said Portland Public Schools is working to update its alcohol and tobacco use policy to include vaping as a prohibited substance and last fall held an educational session for parents focused on the dangers of vaping.

“We will continue to look for opportunities to educate our students and families about it,” Botana said in an email Friday.

“Last year it really exploded,” South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said. “I think a lot of students do not have accurate information about vaping and they minimize the impact. They think it’s a flavored juice and it’s no big deal.”

Kunin said his district is working on education and outreach through SoPo Unite, a coalition started four years ago to address youth substance use and abuse and educate students and parents.

He said the new law has helped back up a school policy the district already had in place prohibiting vaping on school grounds, and that it is making a difference, even if enforcing the law doesn’t always result in disciplinary action.

“We want to use education more and not just scare tactics,” Kunin said. “When young people are given clear, honest information they will make good choices.”

Correction: This story was updated at 2:45 p.m. Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, to remove a comment from a student who gave a false name.

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