California Forum

More teens are vaping now than ever. Let’s stop talking tough and start regulating

A sophomore at the local high school was filling me in on the realities of modern teenage life – the drinking, the drugs, the crazy focus on expensive fashion. Saddening but nothing surprising until she got to the major addiction on campus: nicotine. Kids were going nuts in class because it had been mere minutes since they last inhaled some of it. They were jonesing for their next fix between classes.

Then the father of students at a high school in Los Gatos told me that it had gotten so bad there, kids were keeping their electronic cigarettes tucked just inside the collars of their shirts, dipping their heads in for a quick inhale during class. With no scent and no visible smoke, the teachers weren’t catching on.

These are just anecdotes, but the problem has serious data behind it. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in December that the percentage of high school seniors who admitted to vaping during the previous 12 months had shot up to 37.3 percent, nearly 10 percentage points higher than just a year before. More than one in 10 eighth graders reported vaping during that time.

“Teens are clearly attracted to the marketable technology and flavorings seen in vaping devices; however, it is urgent that teens understand the possible effects of vaping on overall health; the development of the teen brain; and the potential for addiction,” Nora D. Volkow, director of NIDA, was quoted as saying in a press release. Kids are less likely to smoke, she said, so that’s good, but the craze for nicotine in aerosol form has made total tobacco use (e-cigarettes are considered tobacco products even though they’re not made from tobacco) soar. “We must continue aggressive educational efforts on all products containing nicotine,” Volkow said.

The education of teenagers is a cheery but sloppy way to go about this. No one could possibly be against education, right? But think of all the deaths caused by cigarettes before education led to serious reductions in the numbers of smokers. Cigarettes are still one of the top causes of premature death among Americans.

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The tobacco companies marketed to kids like crazy, with cool Joe Camel and flavored cigarettes, while pretending that they were utterly opposed to underage smoking.

So how many of us are willing to believe the executives from Juul Labs, the big producer of vaping pods, when they testified before Congress in late July that they never intended their fruit- and candy-flavored products to be used by impressionable kids? They were just for adults who wanted to quit smoking. As though Juul’s aim is to produce a smoke-free America, not to build a future consumer base of nicotine-addicted adults.

The industry’s early tactics copied the same advertising techniques of the cigarette companies, using young-looking models, colorful ads and launch parties, Stanford University Professor Robert Jackler told Congress members.

At first, I was cautiously willing to believe that e-cigarettes might be a real health boon if they replaced cigarettes: a smoking-type experience with less risk of various health problems from actual smoke. Perhaps, they ultimately will prove to have some usefulness. Though studies have been mixed, some have found that people attempting to quit cigarettes are more likely to succeed with vaping. Perhaps, but then they’re often hooked on their vaping product.

Karin Klein
Karin Klein
developing emphysema and heart disease. chronic irritation of the lung and airway

Nicotine also appears to have particularly harmful effects on teenagers, interfering with the development of the adolescent brain. One of those risks, ironically, is a higher risk of long-term nicotine addiction. But mood disorders and permanent reduction of impulse control are additional problems, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. And more: “Nicotine also changes the way synapses are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning.”

It’s understandable, then, why San Francisco decided to ban e-cigarette sales. Keeping these out of the hands of kids is getting impossible. Other California cities are looking at doing the same. But with online sales and the ability to buy in other cities (and states, if this went statewide), it’s more an inconvenience than a problem-solver. E-cigarettes would cost more, but they’d still be available. These cities also would be in the odd position of allowing the sale of regular cigarettes but not of a product that could help adults stop smoking, even if their new habit has its own (though, lesser) dangers.

A better idea: Let’s tax the hell out of e-cigarettes statewide, making them three times as expensive as they are and using the money for continual surveillance of sales to minors. Set tougher punishments on anyone found to be selling to kids, including loss of business license after more than one offense.

Ultimately, federal intervention is needed. The U.S Food and Drug Administration has been talking tough but now it needs to move swiftly to ban all flavored tobacco products, require vaping devices to look like what they are and to have a particular smell that makes them easy for parents and teachers to detect. Warnings should be printed on the devices themselves: “This product can mess with teens’ brain cells.”

Our society didn’t know enough about the dangers of smoking to rein in Big Tobacco 60 years ago. We should know better now.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.
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