The past few years have seen a great – somewhat frightening – increase in the number of teens and young adults attracted to the supposedly innocuous practice of smoking electronic cigarettes – ‘vapes’, as they are commonly referred to, because they don’t generate actual smoke, but water vapors laced with nicotine and who knows what else.
Because they deliver lower of doses of known-to-be-harmful nicotine, vapes have, since they were introduced in 2004, appealed to people who wanted to quit smoking regular cigarettes and viewed them as a tempering-off approach, potentially leading to total cessation of smoking.
That sometimes works; often, though, it doesn’t.
But worse than wanna-be ex-smokers taking up vapes is the fact that significant numbers of teens have done so, too. Some just think it’s a cool thing to do. Others see it as a way of sharing an experience with friends, as reported recently by Huffingtonpost.com. (The article, quoted below,was written by teen reporters from The Mash, a weekly publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.)
“Hinsdale Central senior Cameron Anderson didn’t know what she was getting herself into when she picked up the seemingly harmless device. She said she was at a party at the end of last school year when she decided to try an electronic cigarette out of boredom.
“I really liked vaping at the time because of the intimacy we all had while sharing this one vape,” Anderson said.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use of e-cigarettes by middle and high school students nearly tripled from 2013 to 2014, creating a “vape culture” among today’s young people. Sherry Emery, a senior research scientist currently examining youth and adult smoking behaviors at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she thinks that teens are attracted to vaping because it’s a novelty.
“They’re teenagers. They’re going to do stuff,” Emery said. “They think it’s fun and exciting.”
Tricks of the trade
In Emery’s opinion, vaping comes with an “artisanal creativity” that includes everything from flavor combinations and fashionable devices to vape tricks and competitions.
Anderson recalled that at the party, she was initially attracted to the games that involved vaping.
“They looked like they were having a good time doing vape tricks together,” Anderson said.
Popular tricks include blowing smoke into an “O” shape and exhaling smoke through the nose. Social media sites such as Instagram and YouTube can serve as platforms for online vape-trick competitions and publicizing electronic cigarette use.
Amanda Mendez, a senior at Christ The King Jesuit College Prep, also has noticed the obsession with vape tricks.
“It’s crazy—you will see so many Snapchat stories full of kids in the locker room or even the bathroom showing off tricks,” Mendez said.
Tricks and novelty aside, Dean Kostopoulos, who graduated from Naperville North last spring and has several friends who vape, said the attraction isn’t complicated: Teens think vaping is fun.
“Everyone feels like (vaping) is a more healthy way to smoke, but it’s more for the thrill of it,” Kostopoulos said. “Everybody thinks it’s cool.”
Not only do many teens find them cool, but e-cigarettes are also very accessible. In Illinois, a person must be 18 years of age to purchase cigarettes, both traditional and electronic. However, e-cigs easily can be obtained by teens younger than 18 from online vendors.
And e-cigs aren’t just easier for minors to purchase; they’re also easier to conceal. Mendez said that due to the discreet appearance of e-cigs, students rarely get caught at school. Many vaping devices are designed to look like pens: compact, shiny and inconspicuous. In fact, some devices such as Cloud 2.0 and microG are marketed as unnoticeable.
“The pens tend to be made out of the same material as ordinary writing pens,” Mendez said.
According to Naperville North dean Jim Konrad, the consequences for possession of electronic cigarettes are the same as for possession of combustible cigarettes: suspension. But Konrad said he hasn’t run into many issues with student use of tobacco products.
“To be honest, we don’t have a lot of smoking violations here,” Konrad said.
Of the few violations Konrad has witnessed, one student was actually using an electronic cigarette with parental permission as a less harmful alternative to other substances.
“If the kid is going to be using something extreme or a vapor pen, obviously we’re going to choose the vapor pen as the healthier alternative,” Konrad said.
Some use e-cigs because they think vaping is a safer alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes, and research from institutions like the Roswell Park Cancer Institute suggests that may be true. But according to Jidong Huang, another senior research scientist at UIC, the comparison shouldn’t be between electronic and combustible cigarettes or other substances, but between teens who vape and teens who don’t.
“The question is, ‘Is vaping better than not using any products?’ “ Huang said. “And the answer is no.”
Some consequences of adolescent vaping are obvious. The morning after vaping with friends at a party, Anderson said she woke up with chest pain and a sore throat. For the next month, her laugh came out as a wheeze.
“I promised myself I would never do it again in hopes that my laugh would return back to normal so I didn’t sound like a broken tuba,” Anderson said.
But some of the effects of adolescent vaping aren’t as noticeable. According to Emery, electronic cigarettes renormalize smoking, an act that has become less and less socially acceptable over the past 20 years. In actuality, electronic cigarettes have the potential to act as a gateway to combustible cigarettes.
“It makes the act of smoking less unappealing,” Emery said. “A lot of people report that while they enjoy vaping, they find themselves needing a certain level of nicotine. Vaping isn’t always going to satisfy their needs.”
Aside from nicotine, Emery explained that the products don’t have clear standards and may contain heavy metals.
“There’s a lot of variability in the safety of the components,” Emery said
Beyond that concern, vaping devices are compatible with marijuana, cocaine, THC liquids and other drugs, making substance abuse easier and less publicly recognizable for teens and young adults. The devices’ lack of transparency creates a danger for users who may not be completely aware of what’s inside the electronic cigarette.
Despite these concerns, Emery said fewer people are worried about vaping because it seems like the least problematic of many dangerous options.
“You could kind of throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘Well if (teens) are going to do something, it might as well be this,’ because it is less harmful (than other drugs), probably,” she said. “It’s all appealing to the things teens want to do. Be creative and experiment and be a bit edgy.”
In May of this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized a rule extending its authority to all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, cigars, hookah tobacco and pipe tobacco, among others. This historic rule helps implement the bipartisan Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 and allows the FDA to improve public health and protect future generations from the dangers of tobacco use through a variety of steps, including restricting the sale of these tobacco products to minors nationwide.
“We have more to do to help protect Americans from the dangers of tobacco and nicotine, especially our youth. As cigarette smoking among those under 18 has fallen, the use of other nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, has taken a drastic leap. All of this is creating a new generation of Americans who are at risk of addiction,” said HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell. “Today’s announcement is an important step in the fight for a tobacco-free generation – it will help us catch up with changes in the marketplace, put into place rules that protect our kids and give adults information they need to make informed decisions.”
A recent survey supported by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows current e-cigarette use among high school students has skyrocketed from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015 (an over 900 percent increase) and hookah use has risen significantly. In 2015, 3 million middle and high school students were current e-cigarette users, and data showed high school boys smoked cigars at about the same rate as cigarettes. Additionally, a joint study by the FDA and the National Institutes of Health shows that in 2013-2014, nearly 80 percent of current youth tobacco users reported using a flavored tobacco product in the past 30 days – with the availability of appealing flavors consistently cited as a reason for use.
Before this new rule, there was no federal law prohibiting retailers from selling e-cigarettes, hookah tobacco or cigars to people under age 18. Today’s rule changes that with provisions aimed at restricting youth access, which go into effect in 90 days, including:
- Not allowing products to be sold to persons under the age of 18 years (both in person and online);
- Requiring age verification by photo ID;
- Not allowing the selling of covered tobacco products in vending machines (unless in an adult-only facility); and
- Not allowing the distribution of free samples.
The actions being taken by the FDA will help prevent misleading claims by tobacco product manufacturers, evaluate the ingredients of tobacco products and how they are made, as well as communicate their potential risks.
The rule also requires manufacturers of all newly-regulated products, to show that the products meet the applicable public health standard set forth in the law and receive marketing authorization from the FDA, unless the product was on the market as of Feb. 15, 2007. The tobacco product review process gives the agency the ability to evaluate important factors such as ingredients, product design and health risks, as well as their appeal to youth and non-users.
Under staggered timelines, the FDA expects that manufacturers will continue selling their products for up to two years while they submit – and an additional year while the FDA reviews – a new tobacco product application. The FDA will issue an order granting marketing authorization where appropriate; otherwise, the product will face FDA enforcement.