As cases of vaping-related illness in the U.S. surged past 800 this week (with 12 dead), many throughout the country, including some local experts, say it’s best to avoid the devices altogether.
Steven Meier, an associate professor with the University of Idaho and director of the school’s Addiction Training Center, said even before the recent eruption of health complications, that vaping devices like e-cigarettes have given the health care community pause. He said not only has the industry, including the various “e-juices” and their additives, gone largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but many contain chemicals known to have harmful effects.
He said this lack of regulation and the relative newness of the product has also allowed for e-cigarette producers to circumvent laws restricting tobacco-related advertisements and the sale of flavored tobacco products. With e-juice flavors like black cherry and gummy candy and aggressive marketing campaigns emphasizing “coolness,” Meier said there is little wonder why many believe these strategies are targeting young people.
“It’s the same stuff that we did with tobacco about 70 years ago – there’s no real difference here from a marketing standpoint, it’s pretty straightforward,” Meier said. “The problem is there was no real quality control and so you didn’t know what you’re getting – you didn’t know what was in that stuff.”
Meier said when considering the health implications of e-cigarettes, it is important to note that users aren’t inhaling water vapor as is often advertised, but clouds of infinitesimally fine particles that sometimes carry heavy metals and other harmful agents. He said the health care community is still struggling to identify a common cause of the recent instances of vaping-related illness, many of which have been linked to products containing THC – the psychoactive chemical in cannabis.
Meier said the vapors from these devices have a pronounced effect on adolescent brains, making their popularity among young people of particular concern. He said the brains of those younger than 25 are still undergoing significant development and are particularly vulnerable to outside influences. Young brains are designed to seek stimulation, Meier said, and both nicotine and THC are potent neurochemicals. He noted a single-use e-cigarette contains as much nicotine as an entire pack of traditional cigarettes and cannabis today is more than 10 times as potent as it was in the ‘70s.
“In an adolescent brain, (nicotine) is much more addictive than in an adult brain and the same thing is true with THC,” Meier said. “I mean, THC has significantly greater impacts on adolescent brains than it does on an adult – and the more that you do that, the more problematic it is.”
While he admits e-cigarettes contain far fewer harmful chemicals than a traditional cigarette, Meier said he still would be hesitant to recommend them as a cessation strategy unless the person in question had exhausted other options.
The bottom line, he said, lungs are vulnerable organs and long-term damage is difficult to treat. Nicotine alone is a known carcinogen with a host of other negative impacts on a person’s physical health including an increased risk of heart disease, and the additives are at least as bad. Some can cause lasting damage that can result in serious conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or obliterative bronchiolitis – commonly referred to as “popcorn lung.” These conditions shave years off a person’s life, he said.
Meier had a number of suggestions to curb bad public health trends related to e-cigarettes, starting with regulating them like any other tobacco product, including advertisement restrictions and a ban on flavored products. He also suggested raising the legal age to purchase vaping products to 21 and raising their price. Finally, he said, there must be a strong effort to shift public opinion on the products – though he suspects that is already underway.
“We’re going to need to have a major education campaign to change perceptions of this stuff – I think you’re seeing that now already just because of the national media’s interest on this topic,” Meier said. “We need to do some major education with kids, and I think parents need to be a lot more aware of these products.”
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