DES MOINES — A new study finds the popularity of electronic cigarettes among Iowa teenagers is growing at what one activist says is an “epidemic” rate, worthy of a national health emergency declaration.

Meredith Berkman, co-founder of Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes (PAVe), says vaping is now four times as prevalent among Iowa high school students as traditional cigarettes. “Five-point-six percent of teens used combustible cigarettes compared with a 22.4% e-cigarette use rate,” Berkman says. “As you can see, it’s a huge difference.”

The vaping product Juul  was introduced in 2015. Between 2017 and 2018, Berkman says there was a 78% rise in the use of e-cigarettes among high schoolers and a 48% rise in vaping by middle schoolers. Berkman is working to rally students and parents nationwide to have flavored e-cigarettes banned through federal legislation.

“There are 15,000 flavors, including things like gummy bear and cotton candy,” Berkman says. “It’s clear, as my 12-year-old says, ‘I’m a kid. Who are they kidding? We know these are targeting me and my friends.’” Just this week, Iowa was added to the list of states investigating cases of lung disease and other illnesses that may be linked to vaping. Out of the 15 states, there are at least 120 cases, though only one is reported so far in Iowa. Berkman predicts there will be more.

“If you see signs in your child of any kind of pulmonary distress, you better call your doctor and have them report it to your state health department,” Berkman says. “If you see signs like increased irritability, a hacking cough, a sudden anger, a sudden loss of interest in school — behavior you’ve never seen before — those could be signs of nicotine addiction.”

She says e-cigarettes are addicting a new generation of kids and threaten to reverse decades of progress in reducing youth tobacco use. Berkman says each Juul “pod” delivers as much nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes.  “Kids are becoming addicted to huge amounts of nicotine,” Berkman says. “That’s very dangerous for their developing brains and the rest of it, we will be finding out soon enough. We have to hope that the damage is mitigated by action and taking those flavors off the market.”

Berkman’s organization, PAVe, is launching a campaign called, “Back to School, Not Back to Juul.”

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