SALT LAKE CITY — Extensive surveying of Utah youth in 2017 found that more than 20 percent respondents who are in eighth grade or above have tried e-cigarettes at least once, and that similar numbers have tried alcohol, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The Student Health and Risk Prevention survey is conducted every other year in the Utah's public schools among students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12. Carried out by the Department of Health, Department of Human Services and the Utah State Board of Education, it garnered 50,237 respondents from February to April 2017.
The survey found 23.1 percent of student respondents in eighth grade or above had ever used an e-cigarette, while 22.3 percent of that same group had tried alcohol at any point and 11.9 percent had smoked a conventional cigarette.
In addition, 8.6 percent of all survey respondents said they had used an e-cigarette within the past 30 days, while 6.7 percent of everyone surveyed had used alcohol in that time frame.
Among high school seniors, 31.8 percent reported trying alcohol and 32.1 percent smoked an e-cigarette at some point in their lives.
The legal drinking age across the country is 21, while a person must be 19 years old in Utah in order to smoke either traditional or electronic cigarettes.
Because their brains are still forming, teens who use any of those substances are at special risk of forming a lifetime pattern of addictive behavior, said Brittany Karzen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.
"Regular use is a real concern because we know the developing brain is most susceptible," Karzen told the Deseret News.
The Department of Health also reports there was a high degree of overlap among respondents who use e-cigarettes, or in other words "vape," and those who drink alcohol. Nearly 60 percent of students who reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days had also vaped in that time frame, the agency said.
“We know that alcohol and nicotine can affect how a teen’s brain develops. Use of these products alone or together can ‘hard-wire’ the brain for addiction into their adult life,” Susannah Burt, prevention program manager at the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said in a statement.
The overlap makes it clear that "youth who are prone to partake in one risk-taking behavior are more likely to take part in other risk-taking behaviors," Karzen said.
"If there could be an intervention early on, you're more likely to help them stay away from (other) products that could affect their health and affect how their brain develops," Karzen told the Deseret News.
Karzen said the high use of e-cigarettes is particularly concerning because of their status as an emerging addiction threat about which little is known.
She said that while "in terms of adult use, we just don't have enough data yet to make any conclusions" about the broader implications of e-cigarettes, "we do know that they have nicotine," which can set teenagers up for patterns of addiction.
Karlee Adams, Tobacco Prevention and Control Program manager, echoed Karzen in a prepared statement, saying “even though more research is needed," it's already clear that using nicotine can "damage the developing brain."
"We look forward to collaborating with other agencies to develop policies to protect our youth. ... It is important that we work together because ultimately we all want to prevent addiction in adulthood,” Adams said.
Karzen said it is worrying to see that, unlike with conventional cigarettes, there are no regulations as to what flavors e-cigarettes can offer. Research has shown a large majority of teens "who try an e-cigarette for the first time do it because of the flavor," she said.
"That flavor is what is of interest, it's what is enticing," Karzen said.
Of respondents who said they had tried an e-cigarette, 12.9 percent reported buying the product from either a vape shop, smoke shop, convenience store or gas station.
Karzen noted the use of e-cigarettes among teens has dropped significantly across the country, compared to a slight increase in Utah from 17.4 percent in 2015 to 18.1 percent last year. The state is interested in looking into what is being done elsewhere to achieve that reduction, she said.
On a positive note, Karzen said, the percentage of teenagers who smoke conventional cigarettes in Utah is consistently among the lowest in the country.
The percentage of teens who have reported ever using alcohol has dropped somewhat in Utah, from 20 percent in 2013 to 18.1 percent in 2017.
Of those who said they had used alcohol, 42.6 percent said they had consumed it at home with parental permission, while 31.5 percent said they had parental permission to drink at another person's home. The state's messaging campaign aimed at reducing underage drinking, named Parents Empowered, focuses on helping Utahns talk to their kids about the risks associated with the behavior.
"We know that research has shown that kids actually listen to their parents and parents can be one of those influencers that can help some of those risk-taking behaviors," Karzen said. "So the challenge is giving parents the right information so they can have that conversation with their kids."
Additionally, 6.4 percent of respondents said they had been drunk or high while at school, and 2.7 percent said they had sold drugs. Another 4.3 percent reported they had engaged in binge drinking, defined in the survey as having five or more drinks in a row. Three percent of high school seniors said they had engaged in drinking and driving at some point in their life.
The survey found that 12.4 percent of respondents had used marijuana and 6.4 percent had abused a prescription drug. Only 0.9 percent of respondents had tried cocaine, while 0.5 percent had used meth and 0.3 percent heroin.5 comments on this story
The percentage of Utah youth who have ever used alcohol or marijuana or who have ever abused prescription drugs has stayed relatively steady in comparison with the 2013 and 2015 surveys, the data shows.
Active teen use of e-cigarettes was highest in the Weber-Morgan Health District, while alcohol use was highest in the Southeast Utah Health District, which contains Carbon, Emery and Grant counties, according to the survey. Active teen cigarette use was highest in the Tri-County Health District, made up of Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties.