E-cigarette use among school-age children has reached “epidemic” levels in Arkansas, according to both the Arkansas attorney general and the president of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.

Because the electronic cigarette is still relatively new to the market, many things remain undetermined with their use, including long-term effects, insurance and taxes.

One thing is for certain: Reported use among students nationwide in grades 6-12 has risen from about 3% in 2011 to 27% in 2015, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. Use among students in grades 6-12 also was reported to be about 21% in Arkansas by 2017.

“More recently, we’re seeing numbers come out that are higher,” said Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of ACHI.

The CDC’s latest findings, he noted, show 44% of high school seniors have said they’ve used an e-cigarette and 28% used one 20 out of the past 30 days nationwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recently announced that nearly 200 cases of severe lung illness possibly associated with vaping have been reported in 22 states since June 28. Most of the cases involve adolescents or young adults. Officials said they had identified 450 possible cases, including at least three deaths, in 33 states. The count includes a newly reported death in Indiana, according to the Associated Press.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday told the Times Record "the pervasive use of vapes and e-cigarettes is clearly on the rise among young people, not just in Arkansas, but nationally."

Hutchinson noted in an email that Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nathaniel Smith and his team have been studying the effect of vaping in Arkansas, and Smith is scheduled to testify to the Joint Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee on Monday to share his findings.

"I look forward to working with members of the legislature to study effective options for future consideration," Hutchinson wrote.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she is taking a broad approach to the issue.

"We must wrap our heads around the vaping epidemic impacting our school children throughout the state," Rutledge told the Times Record. "As the Attorney General, I am exploring a multi-faceted approach to address these problems including educational initiatives, litigation and statutory changes to stop the crisis of underage vaping."

Agents in disguise

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that create vapor that users inhale. The vapor contains nicotine, flavorings and other substances. In one test, an ACHI report noted, the vapor contained known carcinogens and toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol. This solvent is found in brake fluid and anti-freeze. E-cigarette vapor may also contain formaldehyde-releasing agents at levels five to 15 times greater than tobacco smoke.

“I’m pretty worried about it,” Thompson said. “I want to encourage every parent with kids down to age 10 to talk to their kids about it. If their kid is in high school, a parent should assume they’ve been tempted by one … You can hardly smell it, and can’t tell if they’ve used, but nicotine is as addictive as cocaine and one of these things can have as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.”

Some e-cigarettes are also made to resemble USB drives, Thompson added. This makes them even harder to spot and more interesting to youths, Thompson said.

"Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and can harm brain development, which continues until about age 25," the CDC adds at its website.

Rutledge, in her travels around the state, says she has heard from school administrators that e-cigarettes have been confiscated Arkansas from children even in Kindergarten.

There have been 17 students in the Fort Smith School District so far this school year that have been suspended for either using or possessing an e-cigarette, according to a school spokesperson. The Alma City Council has on its agenda for Monday's meeting a discussion to add e-cigarettes to its "smoking and tobacco use" ordinance and adding "school property" to locations where they are banned.

With no state statutes yet including e-cigarettes as "tobacco products," the Arkansas Attorney General’s office is also working on legislation that would be available if a special session is called by the governor. Rutledge's spokesperon said she has spoken with the governor about the issue and requests vaping be on the agenda if a special session is called.

Thompson said the legislature has actually decreased regulation in the past on state oversight of what goes into the vapor "juice" used in e-cigarettes.

The Arkansas legislature resumes its regular lawmaking session in January 2021. A fiscal session is still planned for April. The Attorney General has publicly called for “vaping” to be part of the agenda if a special session is called by the governor, a spokesperson said.

State Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, said Friday that while he felt “nicotine is highly addictive" and risks a lifelong addiction, he thinks a special session has traditionally only be called if there is a consensus on an issue. And currently this is not a consensus.

As a pharmacist, Boyd said “vaping is concerning” because is it still relatively new to the market and there are many unknowns. However, the representative feels personal responsibility also comes into play with the issue and calls for more education about the known harmful effects of nicotine and e-cigarettes to youths by parents, schools and churches. Some of those known harmful effects include the impact on the nervous system, as well as blood pressure and mood, he said.

“We can take reasonable steps to curb vaping, particularly in our youth,” Boyd said of non-legislative action.