Point of View: With E-Cigarettes on the Rise, Do Students Know What They Are Vaping?

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Teen use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices reached “epidemic” proportions last year, with 1 in 4 high school students say they are using, yet national surveys show that teens are largely unaware of what they’re really inhaling.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 66 percent of teens say that e-cigs contain “just flavoring,” while 13.7 percent say they “don’t know” what’s in their e-cigs or vaping devices. Only 13.2 percent of teens said their devices contain nicotine, despite the fact that 95 percent of e-cigs have nicotine in them. In fact, one Juul pod contains the same amount of nicotine as an entire pack of 20 cigarettes.

“Part of the problem is that kids think they’re smoking water vapor and don’t realize they’re full of nasty stuff like nicotine and a ton of chemicals,” said SAFE in Sag Harbor coordinator Danielle Laibowitz. Studies have identified as many as 42 chemicals in e-cigarettes and vaping devices, including benzene, lead, formaldehyde, and cadmium, which are known carcinogens.

Despite this, teen use of e-cigs has soared, driven mainly by the brand Juul, a vaping device that looks just like a USB or flash drive.

Last year alone, teen vaping increased dramatically, rising a whopping 78 percent from 11.7 percent of students in 2017 to 20.8 percent in 2018, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. Interestingly, twice as many boys use e-cigs as girls.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s rising everywhere,” said Ms. Laibowitz. “It’s new and kids think it’s cool and they think it’s safer than cigarettes. But the evidence shows it’s not safe.” Ms. Laibowitz points out there are no long-term studies on the health effects of e-cigarettes and vaping, but with kids breathing in chemicals “we know aren’t safe,” the news down the road “won’t be good.”

In response, some cities and communities are trying to ban the sale of e-cig and vape flavorings, like cotton candy, that appeal to young people. “It’s a crisis both because young people don’t realize the harm they’re doing to their bodies and because it’s so pervasive and so aggressively marketed,” said Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming who supported an attempt to ban the sale of e-cig and vaping flavorings in Suffolk County. The proposal was tabled, in part Ms. Fleming says, because policymakers discovered the market for vapes is more complicated than anticipated.

In Sag Harbor, school administrators say that vaping became prevalent three years ago, but usage appears to have remained consistent based on their observation. “These devices are designed to get people hooked on nicotine and the students [who use] report they are dependent,” said Pierson High School Assistant Principal Mike Guinan, who said the school had confiscated a dozen vaping devices in the past two years. “Students don’t like to be conned and we tell them it’s in the company’s interest to make them a lifelong customer. The company is getting their hooks in them. Who wants to be conned like that?” While Mr. Guinan made clear they also share health information with the students, the administrators have found that helping students to understand how the tobacco companies are manipulating them works better.

Mr. Guinan also said that it is essential that the school and parents work together. Yet, how schools and communities are addressing the issue varies, according to Laibowitz who recently attended the national conference of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, where she said the main focus was, “How do we stop this?” Strategies explored included point of sale, licensing, behavior, and school policies. What surprised her, were some of the differences. “New York has smoke-free schools and lots of purchase restrictions. North Carolina has no purchase restrictions and Kentucky doesn’t have smoke-free schools,” said Ms. Laibowitz.

Because e-cigarettes and vaping devices, such as Juul, are smokeless, many incorrectly assume they are safer for smokers and the environment than traditional cigarettes, according to the National Center for Health Research. However, what users are breathing in is actually aerosol and not vapor, meaning they emit VOCs and airborne particles that negatively affect air quality, particularly indoor air.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Meanwhile the e-cig and vaping companies have taken a page from the tobacco industry’s playbook, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Youth, which has documented similar advertising strategies and health claims to promote e-cigs and vapes that the industry made 40 to 50 years ago as they marketed traditional cigarettes.

Most recently, the companies behind Juul and other vaping products started to advocate for a higher age to purchase their products, something health advocates had long argued for. However, the legislative proposals written by the tobacco companies are filled with loopholes and, in some cases, make it more difficult for cities and communities to pass greater restrictions.

And the con job continues.