More of Alaska's high schoolers reported using electronic cigarettes in 2015 than traditional cigarettes, according to results from the Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Valerie Davidson, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, presented the most recent statistics Monday at the annual Alaska School Health and Wellness Institute in downtown Anchorage, calling the numbers "alarming" and calling on the community to educate youths on the harmful effects of electronic cigarettes -- or e-cigarettes -- which typically contain tobacco-derived nicotine.
"If we know that kids think e-cigarettes are not smoking and e-cigarettes are OK and they're a better alternative to smoking, we need to let them know that they are just as harmful, and perhaps more harmful, than smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco," Davidson said.
Davidson stood in the Hotel Captain Cook Monday morning near a large sign titled "What's in the cloud?" It featured a photograph of a person holding an e-cigarette and exhaling hazy smoke, and listed ingredients such as nicotine, acetone, lead and formaldehyde.
Davidson said 11 percent of Alaska high school students who took the survey in spring 2015 reported that they had smoked cigarettes at least once in the past 30 days, similar to the 2013 data. In comparison, 18 percent -- or nearly one in five -- reported that they had used e-cigarettes in the past month.
E-cigarettes are typically battery-powered devices that turn flavored liquids into an aerosol -- commonly called a vapor -- that the user inhales. The liquids often contain nicotine. Davidson said she worries that the variety of e-cigarette flavors and smells attract teenagers.
"We all have known for a long time the dangers of tobacco use and the dangers of nicotine use, but for some kids they don't think of e-cigarettes as necessarily being cigarettes or being tobacco, but they are," Davidson said. "They're quite dangerous."
Monday's announcement comes at a time in Alaska when tobacco sales have dropped and e-cigarette shops have proliferated. E-cigarettes remain largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which currently only regulates e-cigarettes if they are marketed for therapeutic purposes.
Immediately after the announcement, a cohort of local advocacy groups -- including AARP, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association -- sent out a joint news release noting the "large spike in e-cigarette use by Alaska teens" and highlighting the importance of passing a statewide smoke-free workplace law, which would include e-cigarettes and currently sits with the Alaska Legislature.
"We need to treat e-cigarettes just like tobacco," said Marge Stoneking, executive director of the American Lung Association.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also sent out a statement calling for the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes like other tobacco products. It also recommended restricting the sale of all tobacco products to people 21 and older.
Currently in Alaska, selling nicotine products to anyone under 19 is illegal. That includes cigarettes and e-cigarettes, said Alison Kulas, tobacco program manager at the state health department.
Kulas said this year marked the first time the Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey asked students if they used e-cigarettes. About 1,500 high school students took the anonymous, biennial survey.
"We really wanted to figure out what the Alaska statistic was to know how we can really address this issue among our teens," Kulas said.
In August, the state health department reported that e-cigarette use -- called "vaping" -- among Alaska adults rose from 1 percent in 2010 to 4 percent in 2013, the latest data available. The percentage of adult tobacco smokers dropped from 24 percent in 1996 to 21.9 percent in 2013.
Federal agencies reported in April that e-cigarette use among middle-school and high-school students nationwide tripled from 2013 to 2014.
Kulas said teenagers are getting e-cigarettes in shops as well as online. She started to see e-cigarettes pop up at mall kiosks around 2010, she said, and the number of storefronts has since grown.
As far as teen tobacco use goes, Davidson reported Monday that the number of Alaska teens who reported in the survey that they were current tobacco users dropped from 37 percent in 1995 to 11 percent in 2015. In 2015, 36 percent of boys reported using tobacco and/or e-cigarettes, compared to 25 percent of girls. About 20 percent of Alaska Native teens reported currently smoking cigarettes, compared to 7 percent of white teens, according to the survey.
Karlene Manuel, a co-chair of the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance, said that it took people too long to realize the negative health effects of cigarettes and she hopes that in contrast, when it comes to e-cigarettes, "we can nip this in the bud now while it's new and it's innovative in the wrong way."