DAVID GREENE, HOST:
American teenagers have been taking up e-cigarettes at a rapid rate, and this has worried their parents, teachers, also public health officials. But the recent news of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths seems to be registering with many young people and scaring them. And yet, kicking the habit is extremely hard. As John Daley of Colorado Public Radio discovered, there's very little research and few resources out there to help teens quit.
JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: Beth is 15 and goes to a Denver-area high school. She started vaping in middle school. She asked us not to use her last name because she doesn't want her parents to know. Beth says it all started at a mall with a friend offering a puff from a Juul e-cigarette.
BETH: It was kind of peer pressure. Then I started, like, inhaling it. And then I suddenly was like, wow. I really think that I need this even though I don't.
DALEY: Soon, she had shelled out money to buy a Juul device of her own. Eventually she was hooked, vaping half a pot of nicotine liquid a day. And she used other brands - a Suorin, a Novo a mod. She was afraid her mom would find out, so Beth tried to quit, but it was hard.
BETH: When you wake up in the morning, you were just like, oh, I need to, like, hit my thing. Where is it? Like, you can't really get it off your mind unless you distract yourself.
DALEY: Beth guesses half her classmates vape regularly. Her school does offer some tobacco education. But, she says, teens could use a lot more help to quit. Beth stopped vaping a few weeks back, motivated by the news stories of young people falling ill, plus her own friend got sick.
BETH: It was a turning point for me because I didn't really take it super seriously because I was like, oh, what are the chances that that's going to happen to me? And then my friend actually, like, almost had his lung collapse. And he was coughing blood and mucus. And I just couldn't do it anymore. It's not worth it.
DALEY: A federal survey shows more than a quarter of U.S. high school students have used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days. But the money available to help teens quit is shrinking. One reason is fewer people are smoking cigarettes. Taxes on cigarettes helped pay for anti-smoking programs, but there's less of that money coming in. And in more than half of the states, vapes aren't taxed - at least not yet. Alison Reidmohr works on Colorado's tobacco control efforts.
ALISON REIDMOHR: It is daunting. We've got more problems than we've seen before and fewer resources with which to deal with them.
DALEY: Colorado spends nearly $24 million a year on tobacco prevention. But it's less than half of what the CDC recommends and a fifth of what industry spends marketing in the state. Dr. Christian Thurstone runs substance abuse programs for teens in Denver. He says teens have gotten addicted to nicotine so fast, it's uncharted territory.
CHRISTIAN THURSTONE: And really, we have almost nothing in terms of treatment for these kids.
DALEY: Thurstone says there are websites, hotlines, therapists and coaches to help kids manage nicotine cravings, but those were all designed around traditional cigarettes. Thurstone says he could find no - zero - studies about adolescents quitting e-cigarettes.
THURSTONE: We need some research, fast.
DALEY: A spokesman for the popular Juul brand says no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try Juul. But he didn't say how minors who started might quit. In July, a hospital in Denver launched a quit program tailored for teens.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you for calling My Life My Quit. OK. So you're feeling like quitting is a good step for you at this point. Congratulations on making the decision to quit.
DALEY: National Jewish Health runs the program. It serves Colorado but is also available in 11 other states. Clinical Director Thomas Ylioja says 12% of high school seniors in the U.S. are using e-cigarettes every day. He's seen a sharp surge in sign-ups in the last month.
THOMAS YLIOJA: They're telling us that they can feel their lungs burning when they're using these products. They're telling us that they can't exercise the same way they used to before. They're telling us that they can't give up these products just on their own, that they need help.
DALEY: They even added coaching by text because that's how many teens like to communicate. Ylioja reads from a printout of text conversations between teens and coaches.
YLIOJA: (Reading) I'm 16 years old. I'm super addicted to vaping. I can't seem to quit. When I don't have it, that's all I think about. My family is worried - and all the stories about people getting sick. I don't know if it's really bad to vape, but because these stories, there could be rare occasions. But I'm worried about it. My friends are the ones who got me into vaping. And they think I should not stop, but I want to because I don't want to hurt my family if I get sick.
DALEY: Nichole Lopez, one of the coaches, says most teens say they've heard about the vaping sicknesses.
NICHOLE LOPEZ: It's freaking them out. They're scared. They don't want to die. I had somebody who said, I just don't want to die, so I need to quit.
DALEY: Lopez says teens often think they're invincible. But news of young people getting sick is making the dangers seem real.
For NPR News, I'm John Daley.
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GREENE: John's story comes to us from a reporting partnership with Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.
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