HONOLULU - There's a vaping epidemic in Hawai'i, and about 25% of high school students have already started. That's more than two times the national average.

The problem has become so widespread, advocates are pushing for a statewide ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products.

KITV4 sat down for a Q&A with Youth council Member Alexis Cortes, and Statewide Youth Coordinator Scott Stensrud.

Q: What does it mean to be a member of the Hawaii Public Health Institute Youth Council?

A: For me, it means I get to take ownership of my own health while having meaningful conversations with my friends and peers about how we are being targeted by tobacco and vape companies. It also means I get to meet decision-makers and gain experience being an advocate. For example, I was able to attend opening day of the legislature and the Keiki Caucus event to promote our top policy priority, which is ending the sale of flavored tobacco in Hawaii. 

Q: Why is it important that we ban flavors from tobacco products?

A: We know that 8 in 10 youth who use tobacco products started with a flavored product. And we know that 95% of all tobacco users started before they were 21 years old. There's a clear connection there that tells us that flavors entice young people to try their first tobacco product -- and the nicotine does the rest. In fact, research shows that nicotine messes with the developing brain, literally changing the way we think and behave.
Q: Scott, what does this legislation do?

A: The legislation will remove thousands of fruit and candy-flavored vaping e-liquids from the market in Hawai'i as well as menthol cigarettes, flavored smokeless tobacco, and flavored cigars. Menthol and other flavors are used to mask the harshness of tobacco, making it easy for people to start smoking and become addicted to nicotine. With so many young people starting with a flavored tobacco product, a major way to reduce the use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, by youth is to prohibit the sale of flavors that attract them in the first place. 
Q: You've been working with these young advocates. How are they engaging one another -- what's working?

A:  It's awe-inspiring! We have youth advocates speaking to classrooms and assemblies of their fellow students. Over the last month, youth advocates have given more than 20 presentations to their peers, organizations -- even the Hawaii State Athletic Association and the Office of Native Hawaiian Affairs. If that weren't impressive enough, all of the videos being used in our #808novape campaign were made by students and we even have youth participating in the new Breathe Aloha murals that are going up in high schools across the state to encourage a tobacco- and vape-free life. Really, it is much more effective when youth engage with other youth. They speak the same language.
Q: I understand that you'll be here at the Capitol today for a big reveal?
A: Yes, at noon today I'll be the emcee at a press briefing on the front lawn of the Capitol where we will be unveiling our "Candy Flavored Tobacco Hooks Kids" awareness display. I'll be here with Lt. Governor Green, government officials, lawmakers, and others speaking about the impact of candy-flavored tobacco on youth. Hopefully, our legislators will get this legislation across the finish line – we'll be out there to remind them to do just that!

Monday's event will be held on the Diamond Head side of the front lawn. It's expected to begin around 12:15 p.m.