By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

Alarmed by the sharp increase of youth “vaping,’’ state health officials are preparing a campaign they hope will scare teens from starting or, if it’s too late for that, get them to quit.

But what will work on them is still up for debate.

Wayne Tormala, chief of the agency’s Bureau of Tobacco and Chronic Disease, said two weeks ago there has been a steady decline in teen smoking. The most recent data says 7 percent of those younger than 18 have had a cigarette in the past 30 days.

But electronic cigarettes and similar devices have been used by close to 89,000 in the same age group, more than 16 percent.

Hundreds of kids in districts across the East Valley have been caught vaping.

“There has been a noticeable increase of vaping occurring with our students this year, both on campus and off campus,” Gilbert Public Schools warned parents in March. “This is not exclusive to GPS; it is occurring on campuses everywhere in our area, state and nationwide.”

At a forum sponsored by the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce in June, two area superintendents – Kevin Mendivil of Tempe Union and Jan Vesely of Kyrene – both said vaping had become an enormous problem.

While Mesa and Chandler, like all districts, forbid all forms of tobacco use, there is no indication they have taken any special measures to curb vaping among their students.

But Kyrene and Tempe Union are trying to fight the dangerous trend.

Kyrene is leading the state by becoming the first district in Arizona to test a new kind of monitor. District officials are installing the monitors in the bathrooms of Chandler’s Kyrene Aprende Middle School that detect vaping fumes and alert school officials via an email or text.

Arizona’s move comes as the federal Food and Drug Administration announced new restrictions this month on the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products. Under the new rules, they could be sold only in stores that allow only those of legal smoking age in the door or only from areas where minors are barred entirely.

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb called the increase in teen use “astonishing.’’

“These increases must stop,’’ he said in a prepared statement. “The bottom line is this: I will not allow a generation of children to become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes.’’

Most immediate affected will be convenience stores and gas stations, meaning those who want flavored products will have to go to shops that specialize in tobacco and vaping products.

But it could take some time for retailers to comply.

In the meantime, Arizona already has a name for its own new ad campaign: Facts Over Flavor. That’s based on the idea that the companies that are manufacturing these items have infused them with tastes that health officials say are not designed to help adults quit tobacco but instead entice new users.

“When one of your most prolific sales of vape products goes to flavors called Fruity Pebbles,’’ that’s hardly marketing to people my age,’’ said Tormala, who is 71.

But the problem that remains, he said, is finding a message that works.

It starts with recognizing that the main thing that influences teens is what other teens are saying and doing, said Tormala.

“Who do kids listen to, who are their trusted messengers?’’ he asked.

“They’re each other,’’ Tormala said. “And when you get youth talking to each other about issues, you tend to get a better response.’’

Most significant, he said, is having teens involved in the planning that’s taking place.

“If I’ve learned anything in the past decade or so of marketing around these products, it’s just that usually what I think is a good idea isn’t a good idea because I’m not the target audience,’’’ Tormala explained.

Still, he believes that at least part of the focus has to be on convincing teens that the whole idea of flavored vaping is aimed at getting them to try it – and get hooked. And Tormala said he believes some facts will help drive that home.

“When we confiscate products from youth and send it over to the state lab here, 97 percent of the products contain high concentrations of nicotine,’’ he said.

While purchase of tobacco and similar products is legal statewide at 18, two Arizona communities, Douglas and Cottonwood, have raised the age to buy and use these to 21. About a dozen other cities and towns, including Tucson, are weighing similar ordinances.

The state health department has taken no official position on the issue, deferring to the Legislature which would have to make the call. But Tormala said he personally supports it.

“If you can make something illegal, you’re going to have less use,’’ he said.

One complicating factor is that e-cigarettes and other vaping devices are being promoted to adults as a method of quitting cigarettes.

“Whether it’s smoking or vape use, the biggest influence is the behavior of the parents,’’ Tormala said.

“So when parents smoke, we know there’s a higher risk of kids smoking,’’ he explained. “When parents vape, there’s a higher risk of kids vaping.’’

What that means, he said, is convincing parents that if they’re going to use one of these cigarette alternatives they should do it “away from your kids.’’

In its restrictions on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, the FDA did not apply the same rules to products flavored with mint or menthol.

Part of the issue there is that mint and menthol regular cigarettes remain on the market, at least for the time being. And if people can’t get their e-cigarettes in those flavors, they could decide to purchase regular cigarettes instead.