While studies on the health effects of vaping are ongoing, parents, schools and government representatives must work to ensure children do not become addicted to this cigarette substitute.
In aggregate, surveys on vaping among youths in the United States reveal a troubling reality: e-cigarette use and subsequent nicotine addiction is ubiquitous among teenagers, with some middle school districts reporting 45 percent of their students have tried vaping. Scientists have yet to identify the long-term health effects of this new phenomenon.
Vaping, or the process of inhaling vapor produced by heating flavored nicotine within an electronic cigarette, was born of a market demand for less-carcinogenic nicotine consumption among smokers trying to shake the habit. Smokers knew smoking traditional cigarettes was bad for their health, yet they found nicotine patches and gum insufficient in their efforts to quit smoking. Non-combustible vaping eliminated tar and other carcinogens from nicotine consumption and was immediately welcomed by recovering smokers. However, marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking, vaping soon took off among non-smokers, including youths.
Early studies show that vaping is safer than smoking traditional cigarettes; however, the health effects of e-cigarettes are far from determined. The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, for instance, found e-cigarettes can release significant amounts of toxic metals in their vapors.
In the meantime, vaping has taken off as a faddish social activity among American youths, with use widespread in middle and high schools across the country. Youths — following the likes of celebrities Marc Jacobs and Leonardo DiCaprio — are attracted to e-cigarettes, which are often marketed as sleek, stylish devices that come in a variety of colors. Manufacturers insist their products are for recovering smokers, yet their marketing is conspicuously targeted at a young demographic, and many teachers and administrators across the country say stopping vaping is one of their biggest disciplinary challenges.
A new status symbol, vaping is unaffected by the social stigma surrounding smoking; JUUL vapes, for instance, are ubiquitous on Instagram and commonly used at parties and in school bathrooms. Many students interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times say they would never smoke a cigarette, yet they vape “daily.” A study by the University of Southern California's School of Medicine, however, found that teens who vape are six times more likely to start smoking conventional cigarettes later in life.
While schools currently rely on reactive disciplinary tactics — suspensions and expulsion — to create fear-based incentives for stopping the trend, most administrators and parents say this is not enough. Instead, advocacy groups like the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids have urged the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the purchase of e-cigarettes. The FDA is currently being sued for its decision to extend deadlines for e-cigarette companies in achieving FDA certification as studies are still inconclusive to the health risks posed by the devices.
It is time that the FDA took seriously the hazardous risks of vaping, listening to parents and educators who need market regulations to limit access to e-cigarettes among youths who can easily purchase devices online. In the meantime, schools and advocacy groups should continue to do essential consciousness-raising work among youths and their parents to the dangers of vaping. Smoking, though once ubiquitous among youths, was rightfully stigmatized for its dangers by concerted public awareness campaigns. Parents, school administrators and government officials should apply the same advocacy tactics to stop this new nicotine-fueled phenomenon.