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June 11, 2018

E-cigs: Blowing (flavored) smoke?

by: Temitope O. Leyimu

There is an increasingly popular trend, particularly among middle and high school kids that is raising the eyebrows of concern of health officials, school administrators and parents across the country. In fact, if you ask a young person over the age of 10, they will probably be able to tell you what it is: “E-cigarettes.”

You might have heard these devices referred to as e-cigs, mods, vape pens, or juuling. These devices, many of which are stylish, sleek, and favor items such as USB flash drives, are rampant in high schools, middle schools, and are even used by students in grade schools across the country. Some school are calling it an uncontrollable epidemic.

What are e-cigarettes, and aren’t nicotine free e-cigs safe?

E-cigarettes, which are battery operated devices that typically deliver nicotine, flavorings, and/or other additives to users through an inhaled aerosol are becoming common place even with many hazards misunderstood or altogether unknown by the general public.

In 2016, more than 2 million U.S. middle and high school students had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, including 4.3 percent of middle school students and 11.3 percent of high school students. According to a survey published in December of 2017, nearly one in three students in 12th grade nationwide said they had used some kind of vaping device in the past year. When asked what was in the device, the answers ranged from nicotine to “just flavoring.” Now, more popular among young people than cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco or hookah pipes, e-cigarettes can cause lungs to scar, creating severe and permanent damage also known as “popcorn lung.”

Many young people are drawn to e-cigarettes for three main reasons: They are inexpensive, they are easily accessible, and they are presumed to be less harmful than other tobacco products.

What’s disturbing about this new trend is that young people are being drawn to e-cigarettes under the guise that they are safe or safer. On the contrary, e-cigarette vapor is far from harmless water vapor, and nicotine free e-cigarettes also pose a significant health threat because of toxic flavoring chemicals they may contain, including diacetyl— a chemical linked to a severe, irreparable and progressive lung disease — as well as volatile organic compounds, cancer-causing chemicals, and heavy metals such as nickel, tin, and lead.

Gummi Bear, Donuts, Candy Crash, Blue Razz…

These may sound like products you may see while strolling down the snack or candy aisle at your local grocery store, but they are all types of e-cigarette flavors. Disturbingly, e-cigarette vapor is often marketed with sweet flavors, a leading reason they are attractive to young people. Many teens are drawn to vape juices that smell sweet and have harmless, delicious sounding names such as “Peanut Butter Jelly,” “Cotton Candy” “Bubble Gum.” To date, there are thousands upon thousands of unique e-cigarette flavors available online and in local retail stores, with more being added every month for public consumption.

Flavors aside, another alarming fact is that many of these e-liquids are deceptively designed to resemble children’s juice boxes and are misleadingly labeled and advertised as food products. This is problematic because when ingested by young children, nicotine can cause severe effects, including death, seizure and coma.

As a result of the adverse health effects, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has begun to crack down on direct marketing of e-cigarettes to youth. In fact, recently, the FDA took steps to address youth use of e-cigarettes by sending 17 warning letters to manufacturers that have used misleading and seemingly kid-friendly labels to market e-cigarettes. The FDA has also requested information from at least four e-cigarette manufacturers requiring them to submit important documents so that officials can better understand the youth appeal of these products. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., stated that:

“Too many kids continue to experiment with e-cigarette and vaping products, putting them at risk for developing a lifelong nicotine addiction. These products should never be marketed to, sold to, or used by kids and it’s critical that we take aggressive steps to address the youth use of these products. This includes taking a hard look at whether certain design features and product marketing practices are fueling the youth use of such products.”

Unsurprisingly, the themes used present day in e-cigarette marketing, parallel themes and techniques that were found to be appealing to youth and young adults in conventional cigarette advertising and promotion years ago. Marketing expenditures for e-cigarettes have sharply increased in the past few years by using social media, sponsored events, magazines and celebrity endorsement to drive sales. The approach has been brazen, but the result has been effective in reaching the youth.

What can we do?

Education and communication to inform parents and teenagers of the dangers of vaping, are important and proactive steps to address this growing public health issue.

Manufacturers should be, but often times are not transparent, thereby leaving consumers in the dark about what they are inhaling and exposing to their bodies. I strongly urge parents and their teens to research the ingredients and potential dangers of e-cigarettes. If not, dreadfully, it will only be a matter of time before we start to see a spike in respiratory issues and other ailments, similar to what was seen during the height of big tobacco —but affecting a new generation.