The results of the 2018 Illinois Youth Survey are in, but one of the most important aspects of the survey — which is administered every two years to middle school students and to high school sophomores and seniors throughout the state — has nothing to do with the numbers and everything about how the state has changed in two years since the last survey was completed. 

To understand the intricacies of navigating life as a young person and a parent who want to steer clear of underage drug and alcohol use, look at the asterisks. Underneath the chart labeled “2018 Substance Use Rates by Grade,” there’s this: “*New question added in 2018.”

That new question polls students’ use of tobacco and vaping products both within the past year and within the past 30 days. The 2018 IYS, the most recent one conducted, is the first one to poll students about their vaping use. 

And while the survey was conducted before Illinois passed a law that will make recreational marijuana legal among adults 21 and over by Jan. 1, 2020, it does reflect the changing world of marijuana consumption. For instance, the 2016 survey question “When, if ever, did you first smoke marijuana” was changed to “When, if ever, did you first use marijuana?” in the 2018 survey.  

The change is appropriate, considering the dozens of ways that marijuana can be consumed beyond just smoking it — from mixing it into edibles to rubbing hemp oil on your skin to inserting the psychoactive cannabinoid THC into an electronic cigarette and vaping right there in class.

And that latter scenario is not just hypothetical, says Megan Traficano, the youth services director for Oak Park and River Forest townships.

“All the kids are vaping and what’s really scary is you kind of just think of that stuff as something involving the high schools, but it’s seeping down into the middle schools,” she says. “Vapes can look like your pen or a flash drive. They’re very easily concealed. They’re odorless. You can also do the flavored vaping.” 

Logic, one of the more popular electronic cigarette brands, explains on its website that vaping “is the simple act of inhaling and exhaling vapor from an electronic cigarette or similar device, for example a vaporizer or vape pen. The actual device used for vaping is a small battery powered device that heats e-liquid into an inhalable vapor, similar to how steam is formed. E-liquids come in a variety of flavors and nicotine levels, including nicotine-free.” 

According to the 2018 IYS, 23 percent of Oak Park and River Forest High School juniors who volunteered to complete the survey reported having used any tobacco or vaping products within the past year. Twenty-two percent of OPRF juniors who were surveyed said they used E-cigarettes within the past 30 days. 

For OPRF seniors who took the survey, the rates were higher. Thirty-four percent admitted to using tobacco or vaping products within the past year while 31 percent admitted to using E-cigarettes within the past 30 days. 

Vaping products are also prevalent among middle school students attending public schools in Oak Park and River Forest, the 2018 IYS data shows. 

At Brooks, Julian and Roosevelt middle schools, tobacco and vaping products ranked only behind alcohol in popularity. At Brooks and Julian in Oak Park, 7 percent and 8 percent of students admitted to using tobacco or vaping products within the past year while 6 percent and 7 percent, respectively, admitted to using E-cigarettes within the past 30 days. 

At Roosevelt, 16 percent of students said they used tobacco or vaping products within the past year while 17 percent said they used the products in the last 30 days. 

Most students reported getting the products from friends and older siblings. At Brooks, 41 percent of survey respondents said they got the products from friends while 18 percent said that an older sister or brother got the products for them. At Julian, the numbers were similar: 38 percent said a friend gave them the products while 14 percent reported getting the products from relatives. 

At Roosevelt, 57 percent reported getting the products from friends while 10 percent said older siblings gave them the products. 

At OPRF, the number of students who reportedly got the products from friends was similarly high — 59 percent among sophomores and 64 percent among seniors. Interestingly, the percentage of students reporting that they got the products from older siblings was higher among seniors (15 percent) than juniors (9 percent). Fifty-seven percent of seniors and 30 percent of juniors reported purchasing the products at a gas station, store or mall.

Traficano said that the rising popularity of vaping products combined with the coming legalization of recreational marijuana is presenting some very unique challenges for local substance abuse prevention experts, youth interventionists, law enforcement officials and others dedicated to preventing underage substance use and abuse. 

Case in point? The THC-infused E-cigarette, which can cause a high, is nonetheless odorless and smokeless (hence potentially undetectable to a teacher). 

So what are the implications of much looser regulation, easy access and less stigma (unlike cigarettes, which most people know cause cancer and are odorous, serious concerns about the health hazards of vaping are just now making headlines.)? 

“It will take a lot of education — no matter what the drug is,” Traficano said. “They interact with everyone’s body differently.” 

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