Youth use of e-cigarettes, more commonly referred to as vapes, has increased so dramatically over the past several years that the CDC now classifies youth vaping as an epidemic. Less than five percent of adults in Hawai‘i use e-cigarettes, yet 26 percent of Hawai‘i high school students report current use of vaping devices. In Maui County, almost 33 percent of our high school students are vaping, along with 18 percent of our middle school students. Over half of our youth have tried or are experimenting with these products. 

Native Hawaiian and LGBT youth are affected at even higher rates (41 percent and 51 percent for high school students, respectively). Sadly, elementary schools across Maui County and the state are also reporting student use as early as third or fourth grade. 

To bring the community together around this issue, the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawai‘i (CTFH), a program of the Hawai‘i Public Health Institute (HIPHI), in partnership with Blue Zones Project Central Maui, held a free public symposium this evening in the Kamehameha Schools Maui Nānāhana Dining Hall. 

Keynote speaker, Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, Professor in the Division of Adolescent Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Stanford University, spoke to the motivations and psychology of youth vaping and addiction. “We are born with the ability to become addicted to drugs; when under 25 chances of becoming addicted increase dramatically – four times more likely to become addicted; they get you for a lifetime,” she said, adding, “there are over 15,000 flavors on the market now for e-cigarettes, we do not need unicorn poop to help people quit smoking. The tobacco industry has a kids menu, we need to get the flavors off the market.”

Kawena Kekuewa, of the Maui Nui Youth Council (MNYC) and the CTFH Youth Council, highlighted the marketing tactics, especially candy flavors, used by the industry to entice and addict youth. She told the audience that “Here in Maui County, 41.7 percent  of our Native Hawaiian high school students and 27.8 percent of our Native Hawaiian middle school students are current users.

Let that sink in, more than a quarter of our Native Hawaiian middle school students are actively vaping, and over 40 percent of our Native Hawaiian high school students are using these products. Who do you think tobacco companies are trying to catch? It’s very obvious, and it’s infuriating. As a youth, I’m outraged, and you should be too.”

In addition to her presentation on how flavors hook kids, Kawena was awarded the 2019 MNYC State Youth Advocate Award for the work she has done around youth tobacco and alcohol prevention at the state level. Tyler Fisher, also of the MNYC and CTFH Youth Councils, was awarded the 2019 MNYC County Youth Advocate Award for the work he has done in Maui County. 

Kevin Ramirez, 808 No Vape Campaign Coordinator, and Trish La Chica, Hawai‘i Public Health Institute Policy and Advocacy Director, reviewed the policy and regulation landscape, or lack thereof, around electronic smoking devices nationally, statewide, and locally, while also identifying next steps in tackling this epidemic here at home. 

A panel discussion and Q&A concluded the program, featuring Principal Timothy Shim of Kalama Intermediate, Dr. Jeffrey H. Chester, the Director of Akamai Recovery Maui, Dr. Dean Felsher, Professor of Oncology at Stanford University, and Lila Johnson, Hawai’i State Department of Health Tobacco Prevention and Education Program Director. School Resource Officer Brandon Phillips provided a resource table to answer questions specific to enforcement.

When asked how parents can be allies to the schools in dealing with this issue, Principal Shim of Kalama Intermediate answered, “”I’ve seen the vaping issue exponentially increase over the past few years.” For the parents…it is a matter of being aware. We need more parents, more educators, more leaders in the community telling lawmakers that they don’t want their children being the next headline.”

Jessica Yamauchi, Executive Director of Hawai‘i Public Health Institute quoted a statistic by Dr. Bryan Mih, “For every one adult who quits smoking by using e-cigarettes, there are 81 new e-cigarette users getting hooked.” This is a youth issue and we need to work collectively to reverse our youth vaping epidemic.

Learn more about the youth vaping epidemic and how to get involved at 

Hawai‘i Public Health Institute (HIPHI) began in 1996, then known as the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii, spearheading the campaign to make all workplaces, restaurants, and bars smoke-free. In 2012, the organization moved from a singular focus on tobacco issues to a broader public health mission that includes oral health, food and agriculture, transportation and public safety, and environmental health. HIPHI’s mission is to advance the health and wellness of the people and islands of Hawai‘i. Learn more at