Cigarette smoking by Arizona youth is on the decline, but the number of middle- and high-school students using e-cigarettes has increased at an alarming rate over the past two years, according to a newly released report.

Cigarette smoking by Arizona youth is on the decline, but the number of middle- and high-school students using e-cigarettes has increased at an alarming rate over the past two years, according to a newly released report.

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission released the results of its 2018 Arizona Youth Survey last week, addressing the prevalence and frequency of substance use, gang involvement and other risky behaviors. The survey included more than 48,000 students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades from all 15 counties across the state.

On average, 4.8 percent of youth across all surveyed grade levels reported smoking cigarettes in the past 30 days, with 7.4 percent of 12th-graders reporting smoking cigarettes in the last month. The rate of cigarette use has been decreasing steadily across all grade levels since 2014.

While the decline in traditional cigarette use among Arizona youth is promising, the rapid increase in e-cigarette use in the same age groups gives many cause for concern.

The survey showed that 19.9 percent of youth — and 26.1 percent of high school seniors — reported smoking e-cigarettes in the past 30 days. E-cigarette use was first included in the Arizona Youth Survey in 2016, and use across all grade levels has increased in the two years since. In 2016, less than 20 percent of 12th-graders reported e-cigarette use in the month prior.

“It is alarming that nearly 20 percent of Arizona youth are current e-cigarette users. Unfortunately, these statistics are consistent with the latest national data showing that e-cigarette use among high school students increased by 78 percent this year, and 20.8 percent of high school students now use e-cigarettes,” Becky Wexler, director of media relations for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the Arizona Daily Star. “These numbers underscore the fact that youth e-cigarette use has reached epidemic levels in this country.”

Locally, of 1,803 students surveyed in Pima County, 6.8 percent reported smoking cigarettes in the last 30 days, slightly higher than the state average. For e-cigarettes, 19.7 percent of Pima County youth surveyed reporting smoking an e-cigarette in the past month.

CRACKING DOWN

Nicotine use by youth in any form is unsafe, and can cause addiction and harm the developing adolescent brain, Wexler said.

“Studies show that kids who use e-cigarettes are at greater risk of trying regular cigarettes,” Wexler said. “It is critical that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration takes strong action to stem this epidemic, especially by banning flavors that have made e-cigarettes wildly popular with kids.”

The FDA should also crack down on marketing targeted toward youth and enforce rules prohibiting the release of new products without prior FDA review to curb the introduction of products that appeal to kids, Wexler said.

Local officials are already taking steps to address the problem. Over the summer, the Pima County Health Department joined forces with the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation to educate officials about the epidemic of tobacco use in high schools.

In August, the Tucson City Council voted to move forward with an initiative that would raise the purchasing age for tobacco products — including e-cigarettes — from 18 to 21.

“Since the mayor and council voted unanimously to move forward with Tobacco 21, we’ve entered into dialog with our regional partners in Pima County to bring this proposal to the whole region,” Tucson City Councilman Paul Durham told the Star. “We expect to have the details worked out with Pima County in early 2019.”

Durham said he believes raising the purchasing age will be an effective way to address the problem.

“While we have made steady progress across the state in declining youth rates of alcohol and cigarette use, we should be troubled with the meteoric rise in youth of e-cigarettes, which are now the most abused substance for eighth- and 10th-graders,” ACJC Chairwoman and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said in a news release. “At this rate, we will erase 30 years of work in smoking prevention efforts in just a few short years.”

RISKY BEHAVIORS

When it comes to alcohol, 20.2 percent of youth reported drinking it over the past 30 days. For surveyed 12th-graders, that number jumped to 30.8 percent, although it’s still slightly slower than the figures reported in 2016. The most frequently reported sources for students obtaining alcohol was at a party and from a relative over the age of 21.

The number of youth reporting alcohol use in Pima County was slightly higher than the state average, with 24.2 percent reporting having had a drink sometime during the past 30 days.

After dropping in frequency from 2014 to 2016, marijuana use among youth is again on the rise, with 15.7 percent reporting marijuana use in the last 30 days. For high school seniors, that number jumped to 23.3 percent. Roughly 25 percent said they got the drug from someone with a medical marijuana card, and for 12th-graders, that number jumped to close to 30 percent. Slightly more than 10 percent of youth reported buying marijuana at a dispensary, with that number increasing to 11.4 percent for 12th-graders.

“Data from the past three surveys makes it abundantly clear that more youth are reporting regular use of marijuana across all grade levels — with nearly a quarter of 12th-graders indicating regular use over the past 30 days and 18 percent reporting regular use of marijuana concentrates in that same period,” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in a news release. “Even more troubling is obvious and intentional misuse of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act that is allowing 25 percent of students to get their marijuana from someone with a medical card.”

In Pima County, marijuana use among youth was quite a bit higher than the state average, with 20.1 percent reporting having smoked marijuana in the last 30 days.

The Arizona Youth Survey was conducted this spring in collaboration with Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. In addition to assessing alcohol, tobacco and other dangerous drug use, the survey also addresses the prevalence and frequency of gambling, violence and bullying.

When it comes to firearms, 10 percent of youth reported seeing someone shot, shot at or threatened with a gun in the last 12 months, and 20.7 percent said it would have been “sort of” or “very” easy to get a gun if they wanted one.

Roughly 19 percent of youth reported having harassed or made fun of another person online or via text message in the last 12 months.

By comparison, 26.6 percent reported being picked on or bullied on school property in the last year. Nearly 40 percent of surveyed youth reported seeing someone bullied at school in the last 12 months.

“Utilizing the data provided in the Arizona Youth Survey, state and local policymakers can make better-informed decisions in developing effective strategies to combat youth substance abuse and improve communities throughout Arizona,” Andrew T. LeFevre, executive director of the ACJC, said in a news release.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

I'm a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations.