By Jacob Carter, Union of Concerned Scientists
Teens and young adults across the country are dying from vaping.
Yet, the Trump administration has chosen not to take the appropriate steps to fix this pandemic. First planning a sweeping ban on all flavored vape products across the country, the Trump administration walked back this policy stance. The new policy will allow the sale of menthol flavored products, and its ban on flavored products will not apply to open vape tanks commonly sold in vape shops. A senior administration official said they were concerned with the loss of jobs that might result from a policy that would save children’s lives. This is a story that we are all too familiar with under this administration, and is demonstrated in our new report about how our children’s lives are being impacted by this administration’s sidelining of science.
Children and flavored vape products
The vaping industry is not bad because they are advertising their products – I think they’re bad because they’re advertising their products to children.
I want to bring your attention to a video titled, “vaping 200 flavors mixed together.” The video was posted from a vape shop and features a guy describing the multiple flavors that they have being mixed together, “We’ve got everything from menthol, to sour candy, to tobaccy.” He continues to run through the other flavors in the mix which include, “bourbon barrel southern hospitality, strawnomenon, keep it 100 milk nilla almond, blue razz, vape pink…anything you can imagine is in this bottle.” Another guy in the video chimes in, “We even got cigarette flavors in here!” …as if that would be an odd flavor to smoke. The video, which has received over 1 million views, is sponsored by the vaping industry.
Let’s be honest, how many adults are running out right now to buy a gummy bear flavored e-cigarette? Not many – and we know this because there has been research conducted on this very issue. An article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that use of flavored tobacco products was highest among youth (12-17 years of age) and young adults (18-24 years of age). Among the youth surveyed in this study, they reported that flavor was a primary reason why they were vaping. E-cigarettes are used more by young adults more than any other age group, and youth are 16 times more likely to use Juul products compared to those aged 25-34. This is likely because e-cigarette company Juul told teens that their products were completely safe, bought ad space on youth-focused websites such as Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, and Seventeen magazine, and packaged their products to resemble candy and juice.
The dangers of vaping
Many people turn to vaping to quit smoking cigarettes. To be clear, vaping is currently thought to be less harmful to your health than smoking, but it’s still not safe, according to Michael Blaha, the director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. What are its exact harms? Well, we may not be aware of all them currently. But here are some facts that we do know about how vaping can affect your health.
- Most vape liquid contains nicotine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Nicotine is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s.” Nicotine also raises your blood pressure and spikes your adrenaline, making you more prone to having a heart attack.
- Because nicotine is highly addictive, youth and young adults using vape products now are more than likely to smoke cigarettes in the future, which are known to increase your risk of developing many types of cancer.
- We are not aware of all the chemicals in vape liquid, and they likely contain chemicals that are harmful to your health in ways that are not currently known.
In 2019, teenagers and young adults started arriving in hospitals with symptoms of vomiting, fever, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Scans of their chest showed their airways to be sore, red, irritated, and bleeding in some cases. Doctors were confused – the symptoms were similar to an infection like pneumonia, but there were no signs of a bacterial infection.
The commonality between all the patients was a history of vaping. Most patients were using vaping products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but not all. However, this still didn’t pinpoint exactly what was making the patients exhibit such symptoms, making it difficult for doctors to provide treatment. The CDC dispatched more than 100 physicians and investigators to determine the cause of the outbreak.
According to the CDC, “As of January 21, 2020, a total of 2,711 hospitalized [e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury] cases or deaths have been reported to CDC from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and two U.S. territories (Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands). Sixty deaths have been confirmed in 27 states and the District of Columbia (as of January 21, 2020).” The youngest patient among those affected was only 13 years old.
The science and solving the problem
What’s the science say about the effects of vaping on our lungs? Not a lot, unfortunately. We still don’t have an idea of what chemicals are in vaping liquid. In the case of vaping sickness, people are continuing to get sick with cases being reported from multiple states daily. According to the CDC, a chemical known as vitamin E acetate is strongly linked to vaping illness, but evidence isn’t sufficient to rule out other chemicals that may have also contributed to the development of the illness. We need our federal scientific workforce studying vaping and its effects on public health immediately, especially its effects on the health of teens.
Because we know that vape use skews heavily towards youth and young adults, especially as they are drawn to the industry’s flavored liquids, it was great to see that the Trump administration intended to ban all flavored vapes across the country. The administration walked back this decision, however, restricting some but not all flavors – the administration will continue to allow the sale of menthol flavored vapes, a flavor that has been described as a “decades-old scourge” on African-American communities. Menthol flavored cigarettes disproportionately affect communities of color that have long been targeted by the tobacco industry with such products. The Trump administration’s decision to not ban menthol flavored vape products fails to consider the evidence of such disproportionate impacts, as the administration has done in many other cases.
This is a case where we need policies put in place informed by the science. We literally have children getting sick and dying because someone told them that vaping was 100% safe. We have an incomplete profile about what is in the vaping liquid people are smoking and how smoking this liquid could be affecting people’s health. Although it is important to note that these products do contain nicotine, a chemical that can have adverse health effects particularly on teenagers. We do know that vaping is responsible for vaping sickness and that vape products are used more by youth because they have been targeted in the industry’s marketing via flavors.
Youth and young adults will continue to seek out and use flavored vaping products as long as they are available to them. This means they will continue to become addicted to nicotine, their health will be affected in ways we may not currently understand, and vaping sickness will continue to claim more young lives. But jobs may be lost, and this administration thinks that is important enough to put children’s lives on-the-line. I’m at a loss for words – all I can muster is…