Claire Oakley

Claire Oakley

The surging popularity of e-cigarettes among youth puts a new generation in harm’s way.

Findings from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey show that the number of middle school and high school students using e-cigarettes has risen from 2.1 million in 2017 to 3.6 million in 2018 -- an increase of 78 percent among high schoolers and 48 percent among middle schoolers.

“These new data show that America faces an epidemic of youth e-cigarette use, which threatens to engulf a new generation in nicotine addiction,” according to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

While some adults may use e-cigarettes to quit smoking regular cigarettes, youth are attracted to the flavors and incorrectly believe the inhaled aerosol is a harmless vapor. Health experts point to evidence that e-cigarettes serve as a gateway to nicotine addiction, that nicotine can harm the developing adolescent brain and that teens who vape are more likely to try traditional tobacco products within about 18 months.

Ninety percent of long-term smokers start smoking before the age of 18, which makes it critical for parents to talk to their children and teens about the harmful effects of both smoking and vaping. Vaping can expose the lungs to harmful chemicals like formaldehyde, and toxic metal particles like nickel, tin and lead. While parents may assume teens ignore everything they say, disapproval may have an impact, especially if you focus on the downsides to smoking or vaping, including using disposable income to spend on other things.

One e-cigarette brand, Juul, whose devices look like USB flash drives, boasts more than 70 percent of the e-cigarette market. A single Juul pod contains about the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, and it contains a form of nicotine more easily and quickly absorbed into the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, most youth wrongly believe that e-cigarettes and other electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) are harmless. A journal study published this year found that only 37 percent of young Juul users were aware the product contains nicotine. In another study, 60 percent of teens incorrectly said they believed that e-cigarettes mostly contained flavoring.

In November, the Food and Drug Administration announced a series of policy changes to halt the epidemic of youth using ENDS and the potential nicotine addiction.

The FDA’s proposed changes would ban sales of most flavors of e-cigarettes, restrict sales to areas of stores that are inaccessible to people under 18, and require stricter age verification for online sales.

The agency said it will go after products marketed to children or appealing to youth. The FDA also announced that it intends to move forward with proposed regulation changes that would ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, but those changes will likely face a long legal battle.

Our youth are a “vulnerable population,” which tobacco companies have targeted with e-cigarette brands flavored to taste like candy or fruit. The FDA’s proposed actions to make flavored e-cigarettes less accessible to young people are a step in the right direction.

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Claire R. Oakley, PhD, Director for the Division of Health Promotion at RiverStone Health can be reached at 651-6462 or Claire.Oak@riverstonehealth.org