I remember the first time I tried cigarettes. In middle school, I followed my friend behind the field house, on the far side of the soccer fields, to a large cinder block wall perpendicular to a sprawling chain-linked fence. This area was called “the wall” – where students could get lost from the prying eyes of grown-ups and do things like smoke cigarettes and talk about weekend plans. Like anyone young enough to believe ‘fitting in’ is the most valuable social currency, I took a puff from my friend’s cigarette.
A lot has changed since those days as kids no longer smoke cigarettes – they vape, instead. In fact, a CNN investigation video states that vaping has become a new epidemic in American high schools. E-cigarettes deliver nicotine through liquid that is heated and turns into vapor and inhaled from a device with the look of a fountain pen.
Still, the differences between cigarettes and vapes are noticeable. Unlike tobacco, the liquid doesn’t burn, the vapor exhaled is thin and feathery, nearly invisible to the naked eye. Flavors range from fruity to minty, and these battery-operated devices are so sleek and small in design, they can pass for a flash drive or pencil in a school classroom.
With vaping the new fad in high schools, evidence of the risks involved with the new generation switching to e-cigarettes is piling up. “School and health officials say several things are clear… Nicotine is highly addictive, the pods in vaping devices have a higher concentration of nicotine than do individual cigarettes, and a growing body of research indicates that vaping is leading more adolescents to try cigarettes,” writes Kate Zernike for The New York Times.
Researchers in Los Angeles studied 2,000 students’ vaping habits in conjunction with questions about respiratory symptoms. “About 500 of the students said they had vaped at some point… And about 200 had vaped within the past 30 days. Recent vapers were about twice as likely to have chronic bronchitis as were kids who had never vaped… students who had vaped in the past, but not in the last month, also were about as likely as current vapers to have chronic bronchitis,” reports Lindsey Konkel in Science News for Students.
And it’s not just respiratory symptoms that are cause for alarm. New research has found traces of toxic metals in e-liquids – substances like formaldehyde (a gas found in fertilizers, pesticides and other products) and acetaldehyde, writes Science News for Students – which may contain carcinogens that can cause cancer. More troubling were traces of nickel, chromium, and manganese. These are naturally occuring metals, “inside the body, though, they can cause trouble.” The presence of these toxic metals may be spreading in manufacturing of e-liquids for vapes. In fact, a researcher at UC Berkeley, Catherine Hess, has found “traces of toxic metals in the e-liquids used in five different brands of e-cigarettes.”
What about the companies that market and sell e-cigarettes and vapes and their liquid cartridges to the public? According to an infographic on Vaping Daily, the market is newly formed. Vaping grew out of inhaling marijuana leaves thrown onto hot coals in Grecian times. Then came hookah, a variation of vaping, which spawned inhaling vaporized liquid in modern times. Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist, invented e-cigarettes in 2003, sparking a commercial revolution.
With big business sniffing around the prospect of a new addictive product, e-cigarettes first gained popularity as a way for smokers to quit cigarettes. However, some believe companies and advertisers are targeting young adults with its stylish design and “cool factor.” Just ask Jennifer Kovarik, an educator who runs tobacco prevention programs for Boulder County in Colorado. “If they didn’t want youth to use it, it would be sold in 18-and-over-only establishments. It’s available at Circle K’s across the country.”
It’s true, with anything that becomes popular and new – plus the highly addictive nature of nicotine – and you have a captive young adult audience. Just look at the growing number of high schoolers vaping, a phenomenon that has spread like wildfire. “It’s our demon,” says Nate Carpenter, Vice Principal at Cape Elizabeth High School in Maine, to the New York Times. “It’s the one risky thing you can do in your life – with little consequence, in their [young adults] mind – to show that you’re a little bit of a rebel.”
Despite these claims, researches from across the pond have found contradictory evidence. Published in a Rolling Stone article in 2015, British health officials unveiled a landmark review of e-cigarette devices in a study that found them to be “around 95 percent safer than smoking.”
The Rolling Stone article also charges American media with labeling the rise of vaping as harmful without evidence to back it up, and using the “they’re coming after our kids” argument as scare tactics and distracting from the people who benefit the most from vaping – those who are trying to quit smoking. This may well be a spurious claim.
As a clinician and interventionist, I believe further research is essential for this topic. How harmful are the toxic metals found in e-liquids to humans and at what levels? There are plenty of harmful substances in our daily environments, but they come at negligible levels. Is the same true for the formaldehyde in e-cigarettes? Is vapor any less harmful on our lungs than the smoke and tar that comes from tobacco? The more research accumulated, the clearer an answer will become.
On the other hand, as a parent and grandparent, my gut reaction is to be concerned about what my kid is putting in their newly developing bodies. Just as my teachers and parents were concerned with what I was doing at the wall behind the field house, I wonder how parents feel about this growing trend. With any public policy debate, I challenge communities, parents, schools, businesses, churches and friends to educate themselves about the risks involved with young adults consuming unknown, new or dangerous substances.
To begin, the best thing for parents to do is to open an honest conversation with their teenage son or daughter. Though the jury is still out on research-based evidence, it’s important to come equipped with facts and meaningful reasons for why you’re concerned for their health. According to this infographic from the Surgeon General providing useful information for parents to talk to their children about e-cigarettes, in addition to providing facts, parents must:
- Be calm, listen, and avoid criticism
- Set a positive tobacco-free example
- Respond to questions with thoughtful answers
- Ask questions and show interest
- Keep the dialogue open by maintaining an active presence in your son or daughter’s life
We have to ask important questions and demand transparency and veracity. As I wrote about the marijuana legalization debate, a topic that mirrors many of the same issues with vaping, “One thing we can depend on in the tumultuous times we call the American experiment is the freedom to choose. We’ve got to stand up and use our voices – on both sides of the argument – to fight for the country we want our children to experience.”