It’s delicious, cheap, and easy to get: vaping. It’s easy to use, easy to conceal, and easy to think it’s relatively harmless, but vaping is also easy to become chemically dependent on, even in as little as a fortnight.
The inhalation of an aerosol concoction of flavoring and nicotine has become a major health threat to the nation’s youth and, like the FDA and the various anti-tobacco and anti-nicotine groups out there, the Tri-Town is turning its attention towards protecting young people from the dangers of vaping as the number of adolescents and teenagers trying and regularly using electronic cigarettes and devices reaches epidemic proportions.
Bob Collette from the Cape Cod Regional Tobacco Program and Morissa Vital from the Southeast Tobacco-Free Community Partnership told the parents inside the ORR auditorium on September 20 that underage use of electronic nicotine delivery systems, most commonly known as e-cigarettes or ‘vaping,’ has increased 900% since 2005, especially during the last two years.
“This is a problem that’s reached epidemic [proportions],” said Collette. “As adults in the community … it all caught us off-guard.”
According to a statewide survey of Massachusetts high school students, 44.8% have admitted they have tried vaping at least once, a number much higher than the number of high school students who smoked cigarettes in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Collette said young people are vaping at a rate nine times higher than adults, with 23.7% of teenagers vaping as opposed to 2.6% of adults.
“So it really is a youth problem,” said Collette.
Nicotine primes the still-developing adolescent brain for future addiction, Vital said, causing permanent damage that cannot be reversed.
And the tobacco industry knows this, Collette said, spending about 95% of their marketing budget targeting adolescents age 14.
“Those are when the kids are most vulnerable with their own self identities, trying to figure out who they are, what social group are they going to identify with, all the anxiety about going into high school,” said Collette. “The tobacco industry knows it – the middle school kids are quite vulnerable.”
What’s more, said Collette, “[Nicotine use in teens] can also lead to mood disorders such as depression.” And the younger a person is addicted to nicotine, the longer they will use the drug and the harder it will be to quit.
Big Tobacco uses three powerful tactics: “It’s sweet, cheap, and easy to get,” said Collette.
The tasty, fruity, novelty flavors are what appeal to the youth. Flavored e-cigarettes are sold everywhere, including some pharmacies, and are sold in convenient stores and corner stores, places where young people frequent. They cost less than a pack of cigarettes, and they can be used without detection and hidden from parents and teachers.
One of the major brands of vaping devices is Juul, pronounced “jewel,” and comes in an array of forms from devices that look like USB thumb drives and even resemble eyeliner or a pen that can be slipped into a pocket and blend in with other ordinary everyday items, Vital said.
“You just don’t know, so just be vigilant about things,” Vital warned parents. “Make sure you know what they have in their possession.”
Some of the refillable flavored nicotine pod packets even mimic the packaging of familiar products, like Sour Patch Kids, for example, and there are about 8,000 different flavors available out there, Collette said, and a lot of misinformation, too.
Surprisingly, many young people who vape aren’t even aware that the aerosol they are inhaling contains nicotine; in fact, Collette and Vital had one e-liquid displayed that clearly stated “Nicotine-Free” on the packaging, yet a quick read of the ingredients shows nicotine listed as the last ingredient.
“It’s really important,” said Collette. “The Juul, the e-cigarettes – there is nicotine in them. They’re not just harmless water vapor as many people unfortunately think.”
Sixty-three percent of Juul users don’t think it contains nicotine, Collette stated. “There’s no such a thing as a Juul product that doesn’t contain nicotine.”
“What do they get out of it?” one parent asked.
A rush of energy, Collette told her. “It’s a stimulant,” he said, one that uses the same pleasure pathways as cocaine and heroin, he added. And although one e-cigarette contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, Collette said that kids are taking more frequent, bigger puffs from them so they are being exposed to higher doses that are forming lifelong addictions to nicotine.
And unlike smoking cigarettes, there is no stigma surrounding vaping and it’s more socially accepted. Plus, Mom and Dad won’t smell it on them, and students are even sneaking vape puffs in school, said Collette.
“It’s a public health issue,” he said.
So, what is so dangerous about vaping aside from the addiction to nicotine? The chemicals, Collette said.
“The human lungs are not designed to fill with aerosol,” said Collette. “You wouldn’t inhale your hairspray or your [deodorant].”
The main chemicals that put the ‘vapor’ in vaping are propylene glycol and diacetyl. Propylene glycol is an oil widely used as a food additive and approved by the FDA, and also used for some industrial applications, such as in plastics manufacturing, Collette explained.
But it’s the diacetyl – the flavoring – that is known to cause a condition now called “popcorn lung,” and is similar to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The disease was called popcorn lung after workers in a microwave popcorn factory became seriously ill from inhaling the artificial butter flavoring containing diacetyl over a period of time, explained Collette.
“It’s irreversible,” said Collette, and there are no long-term studies on vaping, which wasn’t introduced until 2006. “It’s going to take some time to find out exactly how dangerous these [vaping] products are.”
And there are no safe “water vapor” flavor pods, Collette said. They still contain the same aerosol chemicals.
So how do you get your kids to avoid vaping or, if they’ve already started vaping, to quit?
“Parental disapproval is the greatest deterrent for any behavior of this sort,” said Collette. “They do it because their friends are doing it. Educate them and express your disapproval on the strongest terms.”
And don’t be afraid to use graphics of popcorn lung disease, Collette said.
“Get them off [vaping],” said Collette. “Chances are, if they are using it doesn’t mean they’re bad; it just means they need help to quit.”
Talk to your kids, said Collette. Educate yourselves as parents, and hold honest conversations about vaping. Ask them who’s doing it and make sure they know the risks. Some resources include www.outrage.org, www.smokefreeteen.org, or www.makesmokinghistory.
By Jean Perry