Girls Are Leading Hawaii’s Teen Vaping Epidemic - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Christine Russo

Christine Russo is a science teacher at James Campbell High School.


Statistics are just numbers until you put faces to them.  As a science teacher at James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, I see those faces every day. They belong to the kids that I see vaping, usually on their way to or from school.

Over the years, teen vaping has grown to epidemic proportions, and now 3.6 million youth are using electronic cigarettes. The vaping population has skewed significantly younger — the “typical” vaper is not a long-time smoker trying to quit cigarettes. Rather, she’s a middle or high school student.

That’s right, I said “she.” Many of Hawaii’s teen vapers are girls.

According to the Department of Health’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 33.9% of female high school students vaped in the past 30 days, compared to 27.4% of males. This statewide statistic reflects the fact that girls are more actively using e-cigarettes than boys across the state.

A high percentage of middle school students who vaped in the previous 30 days were also female, outdistancing male students 20.2% to 15.2%.

What gives?

No one knows for sure.  But we do know that easy access to vaping products means more of our kids are smoking, which normalizes vaping, creating a feedback loop in which more girls try it and then become addicted. We also know that tobacco marketing has historically targeted females with themes that glamorize smoking and tout that cigarettes curb appetite, promote weight loss and make females feel independent. This thinking remains pervasive to this day.

We might also speculate many parents are unaware of the dangers of vaping or never suspect their daughters are using e-cigarettes. I’ve heard a mother say, “My daughter was a good student, an athlete and involved in school activities … I never thought she would start vaping.”

Hawaii’s teens are in the nation’s highest percentile of vape users — and Hawaii’s girls are significantly more likely to be vaping than Hawaii’s boys. Courtesy: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Like this mother, most parents have no idea their kids are vaping. Because their daughters are keeping up with academics, athletics and extracurricular activities, it may never occur to them to even look for the signs of vaping. Not only that, but vaping devices are also designed to be easily hidden. Some are disguised as USB thumb drives, highlighters and even a wristwatch to make them easy to use unobtrusively.

Overall, nearly 8% of Hawaii students vape daily, which puts our teens in the nation’s highest percentile of vape users despite the fact the legal age to purchase vaping products is 21.

How did we get here? Vaping arrived in the islands portrayed as a benign alternative to cigarettes. People thought it was mostly water vapor — what harm could it possibly do?  Quite a bit, as we’re learning. E-cigarettes produce toxic chemicals that are linked to lung disease, including acetaldehyde, acrolein, formaldehyde and various heavy metals.

In a particularly insidious move, tobacco companies managed to mask all that danger with sweet candy flavors. E-liquid vendors know that kids may not like the taste of tobacco, but they’ll line up for creamy strawberry milkshake or fruit flavors. Research shows 81% of youth who try tobacco start with a flavored product.

Unfortunately, Hawaii continues to allow the dangers of flavored e-cigarettes as well as vaping pods — refillable “pods” of flavored e-liquid — which can contain much more nicotine than traditional tobacco. In fact, according to the Stanford Tobacco Prevention Toolkit, one Sourin pod can contain as much nicotine as 4½ packs of cigarettes.

Used at a young age, e-cigarettes can have lasting consequences for young girls, including affecting parts of the brain responsible for attention, learning, mood and impulse control. Moreover, the nicotine in vaping products can prime the developing adolescent brain for addiction to other drugs and could lead to early lung and cardiovascular damage.

We’ve had multiple shots at stopping the teen vaping epidemic. Bills were introduced during both the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions that would have banned the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, as Massachusetts and New York have done. But in Hawaii, both bills failed to pass.

In the 2020 legislative session 12-year-old Makayla Isaac Marquez spoke to the House Finance Committee to urge members to pass a bill that would prohibit flavored e-cigarette product sales. The bill did not pass. Eleni GIll/Civil Beat/2020

So, what is a concerned parent to do? We can start by talking to our kids about vaping. We can’t assume these products have not found their way into the hands of our daughters. Next, we must come together and raise our voices so that policy makers listen. We can’t rely on others to do it for us. These are our kids, and it is our job to protect them.

When I think about the statistics for teenage girls who vape, I think of my daughter. I’m lucky. She’s only six. Time is still on my side. When the time is right, she and I will sit down and talk about vaping. In the meantime, I am hopeful that the state of Hawaii will pass comprehensive legislation to regulate access to these products by our keiki before she has to contend with the crushing social pressure to start using e-cigarettes.

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About the Author

Christine Russo

Christine Russo is a science teacher at James Campbell High School.


Latest Comments (0)

The state, or the parents?  I think learning anything should begin at home. This state can’t regulate tourists, much less, teenage girls. 

uknowwho · 2 months ago

    When I grew up, everyone smoked, and smoked everywhere...and they all died of lung cancer.End of story

Perseus · 2 months ago

  To further Ms. Russo's point: Juul just agreed to a $40 million settlement in NC due to it marketing to teens. CNN's E-cigarette company Juul to pay $40 million in North Carolina lawsuit settlement has more details.

CATipton · 2 months ago

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