Crisis of Vaping Among Kids Clouds Holidays
During the holidays, I think we all tend to respond to the positive and inspirational stories around us. The problem is that in writing about health and wellness at this particular moment, I am staring at 6 million reasons why I must shine a light on some disturbing facts that just will not go away -- if only to keep them top of mind.
I am referring to the estimated 6 million middle and high school students who used tobacco products this year; that's almost 1 in 4 American teenagers. According to a new federal report, most of the tobacco use was through vaping. Vaping teenagers make up a growing new generation of people who are becoming addicted to nicotine.
We don't have to think back too far to a time when we finally had Big Tobacco on the run as we watched cigarette smoking steadily decline over past decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking among U.S. adults has been reduced by more than half since 1964, yet it remains the single leading preventable cause of disease and death in the United States. We are talking about nearly a half-million deaths each year in the U.S. alone.
According to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on the long-term health effects of electronic cigarettes, many adult smokers who tried e-cigarettes ended up using both regular and e-cigarette forms of tobacco. The study found combining regular and electronic cigarettes more than tripled the risk for developing chronic lung diseases. The study included 32,000 adults in the U.S. None had any signs of lung disease when the study began in 2013.
What this new study makes clear is that it is not only premature to declare that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes; doing so is putting people at risk. Many of them are children. As pointed out by journalist Richard Harris in a recent NPR report, today's generation of vape users are akin to "experimental subjects" as scientists work to understand the full impact of this widespread practice. Just as many of the health problems associated with regular cigarette smoking do not manifest for decades or longer, a similar prognosis could be in store for users of electronic cigarettes.
The American Journal of Preventive Medicine study found that the trend of using a variety of products, including tobacco, extends to teenagers who vape. The survey, which included 14,560 teens, revealed that 12% had vaped within the previous month. Three-quarters of those kids reported having vaped nicotine, marijuana or multiple substances. That same survey repeated this year found that the number of teenagers who vape had doubled from 2017, creating the crisis we are now faced with.
The idea that "history repeats itself" is generally associated with negative events. It therefore should not be surprising that, when it comes to the public's health, it always seems to take a crisis before protections begin to be put in place. It is predictable.
According to Reuters, shortly after its product went on sale in 2015, the San Francisco startup that invented the groundbreaking Juul e-cigarette -- and a central player in a broader controversy over the safety of its products, along with those of a wave of high-nicotine imitators -- had a central goal. Says Reuters, and according to a former manager, the goal was to captivate users with the first puff.
The former employee told Reuters the company goal was to devise a formula that delivered nicotine to the bloodstream so efficiently that the company's engineers thought of devising features to stop users from ingesting too much of the drug too quickly.
As reported by Reuters, from the company's earliest days, insiders discussed concerns over these fundamental attributes of the product -- its potency and addictiveness. Ultimately, the company never produced an e-cigarette that limited nicotine intake. As has been widely reported, one Juul pod (a cartridge of nicotine-rich liquid that users plug into) contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.
As reported in The New York Times earlier this year, the Federal Drug Administration issued a warning letter to Juul, calling into question the company's claim that its products are "'99 percent safer' than cigarettes, 'much safer' than cigarettes, 'totally safe' and 'a safer alternative than smoking cigarettes.'" It is not hard to see where such appeals would be attractive to teenagers and other new users who otherwise would never have smoked cigarettes.
The plain fact is we presently do not know the long-term harm e-cigarettes can cause. We do know that public health officials and addiction experts in the United States have been saying for months that there is no safe form of vaping and that anyone who vapes should stop.
Recently, in an editorial published in the journal Science, a group of doctors expressed a view that reactionary bans on nicotine e-cigarettes are a mistake and might interfere with honest efforts of adult smokers trying to quit regular cigarettes by turning to electronic ones. They argue nicotine is a lesser of evils when compared to tobacco and addiction to e-cigarettes is an acceptable trade-off for addiction to cigarettes. I guess in this scenario, kids that are trading no addiction for addiction are just accepted collateral damage. Nicotine dependence has always been seen primarily as an adult problem. Unaddressed is the fact that nobody really knows how to treat people of any age who are addicted to vaping.
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