E-cigarettes are now the most frequently used tobacco product among adolescents — far surpassing traditional combustible cigarettes.
E-cigarette use rose 78% among high school students and 48% among middle school students nationwide from 2017 to 2018, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
As vaping grows, raising health and addiction concerns, the Attorney General’s Tobacco Enforcement Unit (TEU) is warning parents there has been an uptick in sales of tobacco products to minors in Arizona.
Enter Operation Counter Strike, the AG’s team is sending undercover underage teens in to attempt to buy tobacco products.
Arizona’s Family’s Javier Soto was granted access to a ride along with Counter Strike agents.
On this day, only one of 22 retailers was caught selling vape products to a minor.
“The ultimate goal is to end nicotine addiction for our kids,” said Assistant Attorney General Erika Mansur. “We're working with the FDA, doing about 4,000 inspections every year so the odds you are going to get caught are real high.”
More than 25,000 retail inspections have taken place since the program began in 2002.
In 2018, 13% of retailers got caught selling to minors. So far in 2019, the rate is up to 15%.
The Attorney General's Office attributes the uptick in underage tobacco sales to the teen vape epidemic.
"I definitely call it an epidemic. You can't lie about that; it's everywhere,” said 18-year-old Kevin McIntee, who started vaping in high school. “I'd usually do it in the hallways where no one would be or in the bathrooms or even in classrooms.”
Pediatrician Dr. Dale Guthrie is frustrated to see youth tobacco use spike, reversing years of progress reducing tobacco use.
“We are fighting the same people, the same big tobacco companies, that we were 25 years ago when I started this,” said Guthrie. “This stuff smells good, smells fun, but it is dangerous for you. Your brain is going to change. If you attack that brain with something while it is still developing, it changes your whole life.”
The e-cigarette, initially marketed as a cessation device for adult smokers, has now hooked a new generation of smokers.
“They don't even comprehend what nicotine is,” said Shane Watson, a prevention specialist with notMYkid. “They just know if they don't have their JUUL pods, they don't have their e-liquids, they start having withdrawal symptoms and hate how they feel.”
Watson has seen children as young as 11 years old battle nicotine addiction.