Living Well: No amount of nicotine is safe for youth
The rising popularity of e-cigarettes among American middle and high school students is a public health epidemic
By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Memorial Regional Health
Smoking is dangerous, in any form
- Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
- Cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States. This is nearly one in five deaths.
- Smoking causes more deaths each year than the following causes combined: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, and firearm-related incidents.
- More than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have died prematurely from cigarette smoking than have died in all the wars fought by the United States.
- Smoking causes about 90 percent of all lung cancer deaths.
- More women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer.
- Smoking causes about 80 percent of all deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD.
- Cigarette smoking increases the risk of death from all causes in men and women.
- The risk of dying from cigarette smoking has increased through the last 50 years in the U.S.
- E-cigarette aerosol is not harmless. It can contain harmful and potentially harmful substances, including nicotine, heavy metals like lead, volatile organic compounds and cancer-causing agents.
- Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine. Nicotine exposure can also harm adolescent brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s.
The number of American middle and high school students who used a tobacco product in the last 30 days increased dramatically — from 3.6 million users to 4.9 million users — between 2017 and 2018, driven largely by e-cigarette use.
The Food and Drug Administration is calling this youth tobacco use an epidemic, noting that it’s currently one of the largest public health challenges facing America. Despite many myths, e-cigarette use, also known as vaping, is not a safe alternative to regular cigarettes.
“Vaping is still the act of inhaling chemical-filled smoke into the lungs. These chemicals are toxic to the lungs and several of them, particularly the flavorant chemicals, are highly linked to the development of lung disease,” said Dr. Nicole Johnson, a Rapid Care physician in Craig and Steamboat. “We know that inhaling smoke causes damage to the lungs and leads to chronic lung diseases, like COPD, lung cancer, and emphysema.”
Just because e-cigarette products can have appealing flavors and don’t leave a lingering odor like regular cigarettes doesn’t mean they’re safer products. Flavors include menthol, alcohol, candy, fruit, chocolate, or other sweets.
The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General notes that these products increase the possibility of addiction and long-term harm to brain development and respiratory health. The increasing use of e-cigarettes is also associated with the use of other tobacco products that can do even more damage to the body.
“These trends require forceful and sometimes unprecedented action among regulators, public health officials, manufacturers, retailers, and others to address this troubling problem. Our commitment to stemming the epidemic of youth e-cigarette use has not wavered, but we know there’s more to be done by all parties,” according to a statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on new data demonstrating rising youth use of tobacco products.
Cigarette smoke has been proven to cause many long-term health problems ranging from high blood pressure to chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and lung cancer. When youth use e-cigarettes, there’s an increased risk of addiction and conversion to regular cigarettes, Johnson said.
“Combine the long term effects of cigarette smoking with underage vaping, and young people are setting their lungs up for developing COPD, lung cancer, high blood pressure, and other long-term health complications,” she said.
Brain development continues through childhood and to about age 25. Nicotine exposure during adolescence and young adulthood can cause addiction and harm the developing brain, according to the Surgeon General. No matter what method nicotine is delivered — e-cigarettes, dips, chews, regular cigarettes, etc. — nicotine is especially harmful to youth and young adults because of its effects on brain development.
These risks include nicotine addiction, mood disorders, and permanent lowering of impulse control. Nicotine also changes the way synapses are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning, according to the Surgeon General’s Office.
Because marketing and advertising are proven to cause youth to use tobacco products, Johnson said she hopes future legislation looks at more than just preventing underage access, but also at changing how these products are advertised and how attractive they are to youth. As of 2014, the e-cigarette industry spent $125 million a year to advertise their products and used many of the techniques that made traditional cigarettes such a popular consumer product.
Locally, Johnson said the most common misperception she sees is that vaping helps people quit smoking. Vaping has developed this identity as being a safer alternative to smoking because it helps users decrease nicotine intake while providing the oral fixation habit — bringing a cigarette to the mouth and inhaling — that is associated with smoking addiction. But there’s more to it than that.
“Vaping has also been advertised as a way to stop smoking by being able to wean off of nicotine, however, data shows that most people who switch to vaping are still vaping or doing a combination of vaping and cigarette smoking a year after starting to vape,” Johnson said. “Many young people decide to start vaping and don’t understand that vaping can still be harmful and addicting. They often don’t view vaping as smoking, even though they know there are chemicals in vape.”
The CDC reports that completely switching from combustible cigarettes to e-cigarettes may potentially benefit addicted adult smokers’ health, no tobacco product — including e-cigarettes — is safe for youth to use.