New Mexico high school students are smoking cigarettes a lot less than they used to. The rate among high schoolers in the state is at an all-time low. But now they’re using e-cigarettes. That rate is on track to outpace all other forms of tobacco use.
About 33 percent of high school students used a tobacco product in 2017, according to the state Department of Health. And if you look at a chart mapping out the percentage use of cigarettes versus e-cigs in recent years, students are stubbing out cigarettes and firing up vape pens instead.
James Padilla is a state epidemiologist. He said a big factor in teens’ interest in e-cigs is the misconception that they aren’t dangerous – that they’re just flavored vapor.
"We didn’t realize it was going to become such an epidemic," Padilla said. "A lot of the vaping products do contain nicotine. It’s particularly harmful to kids, young adults; it impacts the developing brain."
And, he said, they can cause addiction just as easily as cigarettes. State data shows one in every four high schoolers here vapes.
But some teens who don’t smoke or vape, like Aileen Vasquez, are trying to keep their peers from getting into it. Vasquez is a junior at V. Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho.
"Now it’s the easiest to get addicted to these products," Vasquez said. "It might’ve been easy to buy the things, but letting go of them is probably the most difficult part for them." She’s leading an anti-smoking and vaping campaign at her school. During lunchtime, Vasquez set up a table in the cafeteria where students could sign a pledge to abstain from tobacco products.
A 15-year-old sophomore named Brooke Ross was one of the first to sign up. When asked by KUNM if she's ever tried cigarettes or vaping, she laughed.
"Oh no, my mom would kill me," Ross said, but she isn’t just afraid of what her mom would do. "It’s not cool. I just don’t find it amusing to be almost killing myself in a way, you know?"
The state doesn’t regulate e-cigs as tightly as it does other tobacco products, so that makes it easier for teens to buy them. DOH recommends tightening regulations and bumping up prices to keep kids from vaping.
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.