HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The fight against the sale of flavored tobacco products is heating up in Hawaii as more kids are getting their hands on electronic cigarettes.
“Even second and third graders are vaping now. And getting addicted to nicotine,” said Hawaii Health Director Bruce Anderson.
Health officials say the problem is so widespread, teachers often report seeing students suffering from nicotine withdrawal in the classroom.
Statistics from the state Department of Health show 1 out of every 6 public middle school students in Hawaii has used an e-cigarette.
The figures are worse in high schools ― 1 in every 4 high schoolers have vaped.
In comparison, less than 5% of adults are using e-cigarettes in Hawaii.
Dr. Jerome Adams, U.S. surgeon general, was in the islands recently and brought up the problem of the wide use of e-cigarettes among young people.
“As surgeon general, I am terribly concerned about the national rates," he said. "And ... Hawaii (is) no. 2 state for youth use of e-cigarettes.
Adams wrapped up a five-day tour of the islands Wednesday with stops on Oahu and Molokai.
During his visit, he met with the state’s top health officials to learn about Hawaii’s vape epidemic first-hand.
“It’s clear at least based on the Hawaii data that e-cigarettes are causing a net harm for our youth," Adams said. “And that’s not even close to being counter balanced by e-cigarettes being used as a way to quit.”
Anderson, meanwhile, said the e-cigarette industry should be regulated the same as cigarette companies.
He wants to ban flavored tobacco products. And Anderson said all dealers should be licensed, as sellers of traditional cigarettes are, and that it should be illegal to sell e-cigarette products online.
“We’re not talking about banning vaping for adults,” said Anderson.
“I’m more worried about the kids who start vaping because of the flavors and end up being addicted to nicotine and smoking later in life.”
Last week, federal lawmakers grilled e-cigarette manufacturer JUUL on Capitol Hill.
Citing internal documents, House members accused the company of advertising its products to kids.
A JUUL executive acknowledged past mistakes but was adamant the company’s focus is on getting adults to quit smoking cigarettes.
“We need to work together to make sure that no underage consumers use this product. It’s terrible for our business, it is terrible for public health, it is terrible for our reputation,” said James Monsees.
A bill to ban flavored tobacco products in Hawaii was shot down at the Legislature earlier this year. State health officials say they’ll be back next session pushing for it again.