Juice Man Unicorn Frappe, Candy King Strawberry Watermelon, Melon Lush, Blue Raspberry Bubblegum and Cotton Candy Worms. These are just some of the “tasty” selections offered on one website that sells Vape pods. All contain nicotine, and in order to buy them, this editor only had to click on a button that said I was over 21. Any minor could do the same.
I visited the website after listening to UCLA Public Health Specialist Dr. Burt Cowgill speak on “What Should I Know about the Risks of Vaping?” at Palisades High School on March 11.
An assistant professor in the Fielding School of Public Health, Cowgill has been working in California schools for the past five years to help understand and develop interventions to reduce teen vaping.
Much of the challenge in curbing vaping, especially by teens, is the lack of information for students and parents, plus lax governmental regulation regarding this health hazard.
Even though teen cigarette smoking reached an all-point low around 2011, effective marketing and advertising by tobacco companies, which began selling candy-like nicotine flavors, has resulted in a discouraging rise in vaping, and an increase in kids using tobacco.
“Anytime you have a flavor like unicorn vomit, you’re targeting kids,” Cowgill said. “Think of any flavor of candy and the tobacco industry has it.”
The problem is found not only in high schools, but in middle schools everywhere. Kids know that cigarettes are a dangerous product, but don’t feel that way about vaping.
“I got interested in vaping about six years ago,” Cowgill told the audience of mostly students and a few parents. “We’re starting to see a repeat of history. JUUL, one of the most popular e-cigarettes, is using the same marketing that was used when cigarette smoking was the norm.”
Cowgill said that tobacco products became a major industry in the late 1800s, when companies began registering with the various stock exchanges and thus came under pressure from stockholders to keep increasing their revenue every year.
Between WWI and WWII, smoking almost tripled and the highest use was among the military. The advertising promised that smoking would release stress and that it protected your throat against coughs.
By the 1950s, doctors were starting to see a link between smoking and cancer, and yet some of them still endorsed cigarettes in full-page magazine ads. .
In the 1970s, state governments started taxing tobacco products, and “as the cost of a pack of cigarettes went up, fewer people were smoking,” Cowgill said. Then, by the end of the 1990s, the tobacco industry’s assertions that smoking was not harmful started being challenged by lawsuits, which tobacco companies lost.
Annual deaths from tobacco use kept declining and fewer and fewer teens were smoking or starting to smoke. But in 2003, Chinese pharmacist Ho Lik, who was a heavy smoker and who had lost his father to lung cancer, invented the e-cigarette.
He had hoped that the device would help him quit cigarettes. (E-cigarettes have not been approved by the FDA as a quit-smoking aid, and there is limited evidence that they are effective at helping smokers quit.)
E-cigarettes were introduced in the U.S. in 2006 and the product, although it contained tobacco and nicotine, was not regulated. “There were no limits on ads and no limits on the age,” Cowgill said.
Vaping devices (e-cigarettes) are battery-operated devices that people use to inhale an aerosol, nicotine (though not always), flavorings and other chemicals.
“Many kids believe that e-cigs are a lot safer than cigarettes,” Cowgill said. “They think its just water vapor flavorings.”
In reality, said Cowgill, e-cigs contain nicotine and just one pod can have as much nicotine as a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes.
“They are smoother, so you don’t cough,” Cowgill said, noting that many kids never got addicted to cigarette smoking because of the taste and the smoke. The same is not true of vaping.
“The immune cells in the body cannot function like they’re supposed to because of the vaping,” said Cowgill, who points out that tobacco companies try to portray vaping as safer because it doesn’t contain tar. He listed a long list of chemicals that can be found in e-cigarettes, which include cademon (found in batteries), acetone (nail polish remover), propylene glycol (found in antifreeze), ethylbenzene (paints, pesticides), rubidrium (found in fireworks) and formaldhyde (used for embalming).
Kids think they are inhaling a vapor, but they are actually inhaling an aerosol. Vapor is used to describe a visible exhalation, such as steam or fog, but aerosol is a mixture of liquid particles suspended in a gas.
Cowgill discussed the health implications for youth, which include possible addiction to nicotine, harming adolescent brain development, exposure to chemicals and particles and experimentation. And once a kid tries vaping, “It is three times more likely the youth will try regular cigarettes and marijuana,” he said.
EVALI (an E-cigarette or vaping product use associated with lung injury) has left 2,807 hospitalized and “68 have died as of February 18, 2020,” according to Cowgill.
The Federal government has banned the sale of tobacco products to minors and President Trump has raised the purchase age to 21, Cowgill said, and there’s a 2020 California bill to prohibit flavored tobacco products not covered by the federal ban. Senate Bill 793 does not apply to products available on the internet.
“We know many flavors such as unicorn vomit are not geared to adult smokers and this is an unregulated area,” Cowgill said. “I think we need to find a way to regulate them and to reduce the amount of nicotine in them. We should eliminate most of the flavors.”
One student asked Cowgill about coronavirus and how vaping might affect a virus known for infecting the respiratory system. “Vaping causes inflammation,” Cowgill said. “And if you vape, it will make it worse for sure.”
The students who organized the lecture, Arya Naeim, Justin Shafa, Lauren Dardasht and Charlie Slan, said there was a need to educate students about the potential dangers of vaping.
Naeim said that although there is zero tolerance for drug use on campus and that there are groups such as “Teens Against Nicotine,” more education is needed.
“What makes Pali special is how we deal with it,” Shafa said. “We wanted to get this out there and help solve the problem.”
Too many kids think “Vaping is cool, vaping is fun,” Dardasht said.
What can an adult say to a teenager or pre-teen they might see vaping?
Naeim, Shafa, Dardasht and Slan suggested a simple sentence such as “I’m really worried about you because I know vaping is harmful.”