The Food and Drug Administration and the surgeon general are calling the use of e-cigarettes, or vapes, among teenagers an “epidemic.” A recent government study shows that use of these nicotine products among high school students jumped a startling 78 percent in the last year. About 3.6 million middle and high school students vape regularly.
E-cigarettes have been touted as a way to help adults who had gotten hooked on nicotine by smoking old-fashioned cigarettes break the habit. Vapes don’t produce smoke or smell bad, so they aren’t as harmful or annoying to others. And the thinking is that they are less of a health risk.
Unfortunately, these products designed to help adults break their addiction have gotten millions of teenagers who never smoked hooked on nicotine.
Maybe it’s a case of unintended consequences, but maybe it’s not, at least on the part of some e-cig manufacturers. There’s evidence that they’ve been targeting teens as they market flavored products named for candies and exotic drinks in packages that look like cookies or juice boxes.
Thousands of YouTube videos —some produced by kids who look like eighth-graders — showcase admittedly impressive vape-smoke tricks.
But don’t be fooled into thinking vapes are more or less harmless, says Brian King, deputy director for research translation in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office on Smoking and Health.
“Safer is not the same as safe,” King said. “Nicotine is a prime ingredient in these devices. Studies show nicotine is more addictive than heroin and cocaine. And there’s a growing body of evidence that nicotine can harm the developing adolescent brain.”
Nicotine from vapes can lead to hyperactivity, depression and anxiety in adolescents. It can affect memory and impair learning.
It’s tough for a teenager to stop vaping, and most don’t even want to try. Using nicotine as an adolescent can make a person more prone to other addictions later.
The rapid spread of teenage vaping led the FDA in 2018 to crack down on enforcement of often-ignored laws banning sales of vapes to those under 18. The FDA also has proposed new rules for where vapes can be sold and for verifying ages of online customers.
And it is pressuring e-cigarette companies such as the highly popular Juul to tone down their marketing. Why not go ahead and impose tough regulations on those hotly marketed products clearly targeted at teens?
While stepping up efforts to keep more teenagers from getting hooked on vapes, the FDA acknowledges that the problem is already so bad that new products and strategies may be needed to help those who are already addicted. That may not be so easy in North Carolina, which ranks 42nd in its annual funding of tobacco-prevention programs at $2.8 million; the CDC recommends $99.3 million.
The vaping epidemic arose so quickly that nobody knows how to help the addicted teenagers. Existing methods to help adults quit smoking often don’t work with vaping, and most of the medications have not been tested for teenagers.
Research into how to help teens could take years, so the FDA is right to try to get things started.
Meanwhile, it should get tougher on marketing and sales to teenagers, and local authorities should make sure those laws are enforced.