One of the most galling aspects of vaping is not that the industry has targeted minors with candy-like flavors and names. Nor is it that vaping fluid often contains nicotine or THC (one of the principal psychoactive ingredients in cannabis). The most galling thing about vaping is that the industry has managed to convince 3.6 million middle and high school students that vaping is harmless.
Recently, the CDC issued a warning about the health risks of vaping, citing a disturbing 805 lung injuries in 46 states, including 13 deaths that are believed to be associated with vaping. The CDC received data on only 373 of the cases. While two-thirds of those involve adults over the age of 18, 38 percent of the recorded lung injuries occurred in people under the age of 21, including 16 percent under the age of 18.
These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Not only can we expect the number of cases to grow, but we can also expect them to get exponentially worse over time. Just as with smoking cigarettes, vaping will likely spawn long-term chronic health conditions, including lung cancers and interstitial lung disease. Kids who vape today will be grownups who rely on ventilators tomorrow.
Meanwhile, as the numbers continue to grow and the industry profits, too many young people – and their parents – remain unaware that the vaping craze is really just Smoking 2.0.
There was a time in popular culture when the true health detriments of smoking were not widely known. In fact, until just before the first Surgeon General’s report on the harmful effects of smoking in 1964, cigarette sales were at an all-time high. Until then, many manufacturers clung to the claim that cigarettes were harmless. Early on, there were claims that menthol cigarettes were even good for you.
It’s the same insinuation that we see today, and it’s one that as a thoracic surgeon and a father, I find appalling. Ask most teens who vape, and they’ll erroneously tell you that e-cigarettes contain only water vapor. You don’t need more than a working set of eyes to realize this is not true. If you’ve ever seen someone vape, you’ve likely noticed the thick, white plume emanating from their mouths with each exhale. Compare that to the invisible exhales in a steam room, and you quickly realize that – despite the vaping industries protestations – vaping fluid is not just water.
It is, rather, an aerosol often containing nicotine or THC and usually consisting of the same carcinogens and heavy metals found in cigarette smoke. It is extremely dangerous, and kids are getting hooked on it.
I appreciate that lawmakers and the general public are now starting to understand the dangers, with Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Rhode Island banning flavored e-cigarettes or all vaping products. But until the danger becomes clear to the teens and younger kids who are lured in by candy-flavoring and cute names, our grown-up handwringing will do little good.
I am clear with my own children about the dangers. My teens tell me that they don’t vape, and I believe them, but as a dad, I don’t know what I don’t know. That’s just the nature of parenting.
All we can really do as parents is to reiterate the risk, keep an open line of communication with our children, and – most importantly – lead by example. We are facing Smoking 2.0. With vigilance and clarity, hopefully we can curb this epidemic before it destroys as many lives as Smoking 1.0.
Daryl Pearlstein is a cardiothoracic surgeon, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, Newport Beach, CA.
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