PEORIA — A whole new generation is becoming addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes, a product many people erroneously believe carry little health risk.

Thirty-six percent of 12th graders in Tazewell County high schools have used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, according to the 2018 Tazewell County Illinois Youth Survey. And the number of students vaping is growing — in 2016 31 percent had used e-cigarettes in the last 30 days.

Conducted every two years, the survey polls students in grades 8, 10 and 12 in Tazewell County. This year 4,616 students participated in the survey.

“I think a lot of kids are (using e-cigarettes) because it’s cool,” said Tori Larrabee, a 16-year-old junior at Morton High School who is president of the Tazewell County Youth Board, which helped conduct the poll. “I think a lot of it’s peer pressure. And then there’s the flavors. A lot of people just want to try it, so they try their friend's, and then they get addicted.”

Liquid nicotine comes in a variety of flavors appealing to young people.

“If you’ve ever been in a vape shop you will see the names of the flavors — cotton candy, caramel apple, bubble gum,” said Sara Sparkman, communications manager for the Tazewell County Health Department. "The flavors are generally targeted at the younger population."

The marketing of flavored liquid nicotine is something the FDA is watching closely.

“We know that the flavors play an important role in driving the youth appeal,” said said FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb in a September press release. “And in view of the trends underway, we may take steps to curtail the marketing and selling of flavored products.”

Another thing that makes e-cigarettes appealing to young people is the new JUUL device that converts the liquid nicotine into vapor.

“The JUUL, that’s the biggest thing right now that kids are using, because it looks like a flash drive,” said Sparkman. “They are plugging it into their laptops to recharge it. Kids know what it is, but a lot of time teachers don’t know what it is.”

Unlike paper cigarettes, e-cigarettes don’t produce a lot of lingering smoke. Used discreetly, the device produces few vapors which dissipate quickly.

“People do it in the (school) hallways, or go into the bathroom to do it,” said Larrabee. “Since (the devices) are so small they leave such a little cloud of vapor they can do it anywhere and not get caught.”

Kids are also finding entertainment in the vapors the device creates. Numerous internet videos show how to perform vaping tricks with fun names like “Ghost Inhale,” “Dragon,” “Waterfall,” “Atomic Bomb,” and “Jellyfish.”

Alarmed by the rapid growth of teen users, the FDA recently ramped up its efforts to combat vaping among teens, an effort the Tazewell County Health Department is also working on. Education is a big part of that effort — many parents and teachers don’t know kids are using e-cigarettes because they don’t recognize the devices. Health officials are also trying to make more people aware of the numerous health issues e-cigarettes could potentially cause.

“For us, that’s very worrisome,” said Sara Sparkman, communications manager for the Tazewell County Health Department. “My fear is that there’s not a lot of research on what the long term effects of these products are.”

Vaping is not a benign practice, said Dr. William Tillis, an OSF HealthCare pulmonologist,

“Vaping contains a number of chemicals that are dangerous,” he said. “Some of it has very high levels of nicotine, which makes it more addicting than cigarettes. Nicotine affects brain chemistry, and there’s some concern of what the effects are on the developing brain.”

Popcorn lung, an incurable condition caused by a chemical called diacetyl once used in the microwave popcorn industry, is being seen in people who vape. Certain flavors of liquid nicotine contain diacetyl. In addition, bronchitis, chronic lung disease, COPD and even cancer may result from inhaling the chemicals in e-cigarettes, Tillis said.

“A recent study out of England that looked at cellular changes in the lungs of people who vape showed some early damage to the cells, some of the same damage that leads to lung cancer,” Tillis said.

While the dangers of cigarette smoking are well documented, data on the dangers of e-cigarettes is just beginning emerge. While vaping is thought to be less damaging than smoking, a fact which makes it a good tool for people trying to quit smoking, it is still dangerous, said Tillis.

“Cigarette smoking is the worst thing to do, so for a heavy smoker to switch to vaping is a good thing,” he said. “But my biggest concern is kids who are vaping — people who have not been smoking — starting a habit that is addictive. There will be long term consequences.”

When it comes to children vaping, health officials have added concern. What are the myriad of chemicals in e-cigarettes are doing to their developing cells?

“Those chemicals can change things,” said Tillis. “If you look at what we know about smoking, in 14 to 18-year-olds there tends to be more cell damage that becomes permanent. If you are starting at a younger age, there is more concern about long-term effect. And in cells that are growing, there is more chance of long-term effect.”

For Tillis the good news is that smoking is at its lowest level ever — 14 percent. But the growing popularity of vaping among young people is worrisome.

“My biggest concern is that most people think it’s completely safe. It’s not safe, and it’s not without consequences.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.