CHARLESTON W.Va. — There’s a growing epidemic among high school aged kids, according to the Food and Drug Administration and the statistics seem to back its claim.

The epidemic is the use of tobacco products, particularly e-cigarettes. In an enforcement blitz led by the FDA, 14 retailers in West Virginia were either warned or fined because of selling e-cigarettes to minors from June 2018 to September 2018.

“Our message to the public, our message to parents and kids throughout West Virginia is we have a growing epidemic of kids use among e-cigarette,” director of the Center for Tobacco Products for the FDA Mitch Zeller said.

“Compliance and enforcement is important. Doing something about the marketing of these products is important, doing something about illegal sales is important, and fundamentally public education, which is something we have started with The Real Cost Campaign with e-cigarettes, reaching the most vulnerable of our teenagers around the country is something we are committed to doing.”

A 2016 study by the FDA showed 44.4 percent of high school-aged children in West Virginia have at least tried an e-cigarette. According to Zeller, someone who tries an e-cigarette is more likely to try a regular cigarette than someone who has never tried an e-cigarette.

“Unlike cigarettes, where kids know how harmful cigarettes can be,” Zeller said. “A lot of kids are walking around thinking, ‘I’m not burning nicotine leafs, it’s safer’…Well the nicotine in e-cigarettes, especially the products that have high levels of nicotine, that can literally rewire the brain of adolescence. And there are other compounds in the vapor and the aerosol that can include for maldehyde and metal particles.”

“The message to parents is you should be concerned here because statistically a kid who experiments with an e-cigarette is more likely to try a regular cigarette.”

The enforcement blitz done by the FDA this summer, found 1,300 illegal sales of just e-cigarettes to minors. Retailers being caught doing illegal sales either received a warning letter for their first offense or issued a civil money penalty for a repeat offense.

The FDA has contracts through state and local governments where a trained and commissioned adult accompanies a kid into a store where the kid attempts to buy a tobacco product. The blitz has been done since 2010 and Zeller says this past one was the largest coordinated enforcement action in the history of the FDA.

“Everything is on the table with the FDA as we continue the public education and continue to do the compliance and regulation,” Zeller said. “The FDA has responsibility to enforce the law, put retailers and manufacturers on notice that they have to follow the law. We have demanded documents from manufacturers, we have told manufacturers of the top five most popular brands. They have one more month to come to us with plans to address the problem of youth use with these products.”

Zeller adds there are many contributing factors for tobacco companies luring high school aged children to their products. One being where c-cigarettes are being sold to resemble juice boxes, candy, cookies, breakfast cereals, and more, as well as flavors that are appealing to kids such as bubble gum and cotton candy.

Those factors combined with the mindset of kids thinking using the products is cost free because it is less harmful is why it is a growing issue, according to Zeller.

“Talk to your kids but don’t lecture and don’t preach,” Zeller said of what adults should do. “Talk to the kid and have a conversation about if they understand what they are doing. ‘Do you think it’s safe for you?’ It’s not. ‘Do you know the product has nicotine in it?’ ‘Do you know that nicotine can literally rewire your brain, that your brain doesn’t fully develop until you’re in your 20s.’ ‘Do you know if you’re experimenting with this, you’re more likely to try a combustible cigarette?'”

“That conversation between the adult and the teenager is very important. It needs to be respectable, honest, and direct.”

The Real Cost Youth E-Cigarette Prevention Campaign by the FDA is targeting 10.7 million youth in the United State, aged 12-17.