The rapid rise of “vaping” – electronic cigarettes – has local health officials concerned. Little is known about the health effects of vaping or of breathing secondhand vapor. While some argue that they are a safer alternative to cigarettes, and that they might help smokers quit, the devices also may work in the reverse direction: helping ease young people into nicotine addiction.
A recent survey by the Spokane Regional Health District found that 26 percent of Spokane high school sophomores had used an e-cigarette, some of which taste like fruit or candy. That’s far more than the percentage who had smoked a smelly, old-fashioned one.
“Some of these youth are actually initiating on a vaping device,” said Paige McGowan, the district’s coordinator of tobacco, electronic cigarettes and marijuana prevention. “That means they have never smoked and they are starting on a vaping device.”
The health district has reached out to local school officials and families, urging them to be vigilant in preventing the use of the devices among minors. Now it is considering a broader, more aggressive approach among adults: regulating vaping under public smoking laws. That would mean no vaping indoors or near doorways.
If such regulations were adopted, “you couldn’t use a vaping device anyplace you can’t use combustible tobacco,” McGowan said.
Health officials plan to gather public feedback on the plan in the next few months, and the Board of Health – the governing body of the district, comprised of elected officials – could vote on a proposal as early as February. McGowan said tightening the regulations on the public use of the devices is a preventive measure meant to protect the public from potential secondhand effects. It’s also sure to draw objections from vapers and the people who sell to them.
Though vaping omits the carcinogenic smoke of cigarettes, conclusive research about the health effects is scant. Still, the district argues that we know enough to be concerned: Nicotine is toxic and addictive, and “the inhaled and exhaled aerosol has toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, such as cadmium and formaldehyde, as well as ultrafine particles that can irritate the lungs,” according to a district news release.
The use of electronic cigarettes is booming, and at least part of the appeal is the notion that they are safer than regular cigarettes. The battery-operated devices produce a nicotine vapor from a liquid solution. One regional vape shop calls itself “Cheating Death,” and the idea of their supposed safety has been a big part of the marketing push for the $3 billion industry. The devices are unregulated by the state or federal government, and the products are widely available.
Health officials are left asking: Are e-cigarettes a potential tool for improving the health of current smokers, or are they another foot in the door for an unhealthy addiction? And if they are indeed safer than cigarettes, is that good enough?
Great Britain’s chief public health agency recently declared that the devices were far less destructive than cigarettes – calling them 95 percent safer, and saying they should be regulated as aids for quitting smoking. That conclusion drew headlines around the world, but it also drew sharp rebukes from some in the scientific community.
The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, said there is virtually no hard evidence for the 95 percent claim and noted that researchers involved in devising the estimates had conflicts of interest.
Public health agencies are moving toward regulating the devices just as cigarettes are regulated. That’s the World Health Organization’s position, and the FDA has sought to regulate e-cigarettes, a proposal that is caught up in challenges and politics. Several cities and counties around the country have already adopted indoor bans similar to the one that Spokane County would be considering, including four Washington counties: Clark, King, Pierce and Grant.
Boston University researcher Dr. Avrum Spira was one of the first scientists to receive FDA funding to investigate e-cigarettes. He characterizes the question this way: “In theory – and how they’re marketed – e-cigarettes are a safer product because they don’t have tobacco, which has known carcinogens. The question is: Does safer mean safe?”
McGowan takes a similar line. She said that even if vaping is safer than cigarettes, it doesn’t mean it’s safe – particularly when it comes to questions of secondhand vapor and its effects on people who aren’t part of the e-cigarette boom.
“We need to take steps to protect people from breathing secondhand vapor because we don’t know what’s in there,” she said.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.