HUNTINGTON — The structure and messaging of the annual Teen Summit on Drug Prevention in Cabell County was similar to student-centered prevention 10 or 20 years ago — peppered with easy-to-remember tips and facts to discourage abuse among themselves and their peers.
But the substances themselves have changed, and so have the kids, coming of age in a time when drugs are enmeshed in everyday American life, said Angela Saunders, director of the hosting Prevention Empowerment Partnership.
“The kids now are different. They grew up in a different culture,” Saunders said during Wednesday morning’s summit in Huntington.
“But for the longest time, the adults thought they were going to be the ones to order the kids to make good decisions. We (adults) can want a change all we want, but they (students) can make the change.”
Vapor products and marijuana — two of the substances most commonly used by teenagers — dominated the discussions, peer groups and activities during the daylong event, attended by more than 150 students representing every middle and high school in Cabell County.
E-cigarettes and the act of vaping have been on the market for many years, but became popular with teens with the introduction of sweet flavors and more discrete delivery devices, such as the Juul. A study by the National Institutes of Health found that 37% of high school seniors use e-cigarettes, 32% of 10th-graders and 17.6% of eighth-graders.
Marijuana has been used by American teens for generations now, but it’s become more potent than ever. The average concentration of the plant’s THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — has risen from 3% a decade ago to now 13%, Saunders said.
Marijuana and vaping have even intersected in recent years with vapor cartridges that contain THC, combining a marijuana high with an e-cigarette delivery.
Scores of public health entities, including the U.S. Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have long warned about the startling rise of vaping among youth, which may be linked to lung and developmental diseases as well as about a dozen deaths in the U.S. this year.
But for those who preach prevention, these new substances and delivery methods pose their own complexities. They’re so new, Saunders noted, that not many evidence-based resources exist yet — although the medical consensus agrees smoking and vaping are harmful.
The novelty of vaping and high-dose THC delivery may also change how it’s perceived by students, as opposed to how they would view smoking.
While it is likely enough red flags have been raised that a student, even in the back of their mind, may recognize smoking as unsafe but do it anyway, some likely view vaping and marijuana as safer, if not completely safe, Saunders said.
The Prevention Empowerment Partnership (PEP), an initiative of the United Way of the River Cities, began around a year ago, growing out of the Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership, which remains a subcommittee of the new organization. Building on those already established connections and programming, PEP expands those efforts into different parts of the community, targeting special types of prevention, such as suicide and human trafficking.
The United Way of the River Cities serves communities in Cabell, Lincoln, Mason and Wayne counties in West Virginia and Lawrence County, Ohio.