#parents | #teensvaping | Baranyai: Daft teenagers need protection from vaping’s harm

I tried my first cigarette when my younger, edgier cousin fished a stubbed-out butt from a movie theatre ashtray. I was 10 years old, but I still recall my dawning horror, and mortifying coughing fit, with razor-sharp clarity. The whole business was repulsive, but I dared not decline my cousin’s offer; she already thought I was a nerd.

That’s how peer pressure works: from within. It’s not a chorus of bullies. It’s a chance to feel less uncool around someone you want to impress.

Kids today are much smarter about tobacco. But they’re astonishingly daft about vaping.

The Ontario Ministry of Health reports an alarming 74 per cent increase in vaping among Canadian youth aged 16 to 19 from 2017 to 2018 — the year Health Canada approved the sale of nicotine vaping products for adults.

Originally marketed as e-cigarettes, the devices are variously known as vape pens, pod mods, tanks and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). A small battery-operated element heats a carrier liquid, typically mixed with flavouring and nicotine. The resulting vapour, inhaled through a fine mesh, reaches the thin barrier between the lungs and the bloodstream.

Teens are more susceptible to nicotine addition, but tend to underestimate the dangers of vaping. Nicotine affects memory, concentration, brain development and impulse control. Emerging evidence suggests it may be a gateway to tobacco use.

Vaping is also linked to an alarming outbreak of lung injuries, which the medical community has yet to fully explain.

In December, the U.S. death toll from vaping reached 55, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including earlier pneumonia-like cases only now recognized as vaping-related. Add to that another 2,500 cases of lung injury requiring hospitalization. The symptoms disproportionately affect young men.

Because vapes deliver nicotine without the toxic stew of carcinogens found in tobacco, many health professionals embraced the products as a harm-reduction measure for smokers. But it’s not the harmless water vapour teens so often insist. E-liquids can contain several compounds that are safe to ingest but, maddeningly, can become dangerous when heated and inhaled, which is precisely how vapes work.

The carrier liquids propylene glycol and glycerol are common food additives; when heated, they can transform into formaldehyde. The flavouring chemical diacetyl, which used to give microwave popcorn its buttery taste, is a known cause of obliterative bronchiolitis (“popcorn lung”) when heated and inhaled. Vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent added to e-liquids containing THC (the active compound in cannabis), is closely associated with the outbreak.

The vaping industry is dominated by big tobacco players. They claim not to target youth. Who, then, comprises the market for liquid cartridges designed to look like flash drives; flavours ranging from cotton candy to “unicorn puke”; and decorative “skins” for vape pens bearing motifs such as rainbows and skulls? It certainly smacks of the old “Joe Camel” strategy of enticing customers for life.

Effective Jan. 1, Ontario has pulled vaping promotions from convenience stores and gas stations, limiting them to vape shops and cannabis retail stores. Federal legislation limits flavour descriptions targeting youth, and prohibits lifestyle advertising. Health Canada has also produced a tip sheet for talking to teens about vaping.

Chief medical officers of health across Canada have called for urgent action to restrict vape products’ accessibility and reduce their appeal among youth, including plain packaging and health warnings.

Vapes are undeniably safer than tobacco, but that doesn’t make them safe. The benefit of harm reduction for smokers must be balanced against the indisputable harm expansion of creating a hip, stigma-free gateway to nicotine for a generation of young people who might never have taken up smoking.

write.robin@baranyai.ca


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