BENTON TOWNSHIP — Berrien County’s smoking rate remains low, but vaping is an increasing trend among young people, according to a report presented to the Berrien County Board of Health on Wednesday.

Guy Miller, the health department’s epidemiologist, discussed the preliminary findings of the latest Behavior Risk Factor Survey, with data gathered with the assistance of Michigan State University researchers.

There were 803 phone interviews conducted by Berrien staff between June 26, 2018, and June 7, 2019, Miller said, with 98 additional surveys by MSU researchers. The 26 topics covered ranged from nutrition and exercise, to sleep and depression.

Results showed that 17.3 percent of Berrien County adults surveyed are current smokers. That is down from decades ago when almost half of adults smoked.

On the flip side, 61 percent of respondents ages 18 to 24 said they had used an electronic cigarette at some time, and 44.6 percent said they are currently vaping.

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” said Dr. Rick Johansen, the department’s medical director, of the latest method of nicotine delivery. He pointed out that Berrien was the first county in Michigan to pass an indoor workplace smoking ban, contributing to the decline in tobacco use.

In the county overall, 32 percent of adults surveyed regularly vape.

Miller said that the vaping numbers mirror the same smoking trend for young adults from the past. This is because it is new and easy to get, and is heavily advertised, he suggested.

While vaping was promoted as a safer alternative to smoking, health experts have warned about the growing number of respiratory illnesses, and even deaths, connected to e-cigarettes.

A large number of teens also report vaping. Johansen said the electronic devices can provide a higher dose of nicotine, increasing the risk for addiction.

While the majority of Berrien residents don’t puff, smoking continues at high rates among those with lower levels of education and income. Of those with less than a high school education, 46 percent smoke, and almost 37 percent of respondents who earn less than $20,000 a year light up.

Health gaps

The report indicated other health disparities related to age, income, education and race.

Young people are experiencing more psychological distress than older residents, with those 18-24 reporting a higher level of severe distress and depression than those 55 and older. 

Of those who make less than $20,000 a year, almost one-quarter suffer from asthma. That compares to 8.6 percent for those earning between $50,000 and $74,000. Among those with less than a high school diploma, 18.5 percent have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, compared to 3 percent of those with a college degree. 

Black residents in Berrien County report more incidents of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases than whites. The survey found that 21.5 percent of black respondents said they had diabetes, compared to 9.7 percent of whites, and 11.7 percent of county residents overall. Almost 11 percent of black respondents had experienced a stroke, in contrast to 2.7 percent of whites, and there was a comparable gap for heart attacks.

Reducing obesity, eating better and getting more exercise has been a focus across the state and here with the Be Healthy Berrien program, but the survey found mixed results.

More county residents are at a healthy weight than when the survey was last conducted in 2014, but the percentage of those who are obese, based on their body mass index, jumped from 35.9 percent in 2014 to almost 39 percent in 2018. In Michigan, 33 percent of residents are obese.

Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they had an inadequate level of aerobic exercise in the last month, compared to 64 percent in 2014. The income gap also showed up here, with 38 percent of those earning between $20,000 and $34,000 reporting they had no physical activity in the last month, compared to 17 percent of those earning $75,000 or more.

Those with low incomes report eating fewer fruits and vegetables than the more affluent.

Sleep was a new category added to the survey, Miller said. It found that two-thirds of those ages 18 to 34, and three-quarters of those 35-44, get less than seven hours of sleep a night.

Almost 40 percent of those 18-34 say they have been diagnosed with depression, while fewer than 20 percent in age groups 55 and up report this condition.

With opioid abuse being a major health concern, the use of pain medications was also added. In Berrien County, 25.6 percent said they had been prescribed these medications within the past year, and only 5 percent said they had used them other than as directed. The age group reporting the highest percentage of misuse of pain meds was those over 75, at 18 percent.

The prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, was included, as research has shown these can have an impact on health later in life. Of those surveyed, 22.9 percent said they had experienced physical abuse as a child, and 39 percent had experienced emotional abuse; 26.7 percent came from a home with a drinking problem and 11 percent grew up in a household with someone with a drug problem. Almost 35 percent came from homes where parents were separated or divorced, and 10.5 percent had a parent who was incarcerated.

It also charted experiences that help a person become resilient to such negative experiences. Eighty percent said they felt they belonged at their school, 93 percent said they were supported by their friends, and 88 percent had their family stand by them.

Miller expects to further analyze the data and look for trends that connect such issues as sleep, depression and physical activity, and will make a final report to the board of health and the county board of commissioners.

Contact:, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak