PHOENIX — While tobacco use has been declining among teens as they become aware of the dangers, health experts say that same message isn’t getting across for vaping.
They’re sounding the alarm on how vaping is damaging teens’ lungs and brains and how nicotine is getting young people addicted to electronic cigarettes and similar devices.
Dr. Karen Swanson, pulmonary physician at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, said she worries products sold on the black market are to blame for many of the vaping-related lung illnesses that have been reported this year.
“We have no way of knowing what’s in many of these things because they’re homemade,” she said.
Swanson said the black market “is becoming a huge problem in targeting teens.”
Many vape users are ending up in the hospital with extreme form of lung injury called diffuse alveolar damage. They’re being put on ventilators and some are dying.
Swanson recently worked on a study that analyzed lung tissue samples from 17 patients who had vaped and showed acute lung injury.
“What we’ve learned from looking at the actual tissue damage is that this is more of a chemical or caustic type of burn in the airways and lungs,” she said. “It’s similar to pouring acid on your skin.”
E-cigarettes typically heat a liquid into an aerosol that users inhale. Swanson said she worries “there is no bypass track and these caustic agents, of which there could be hundreds, if not thousands, go directly into the lungs.”
It’s not just the toxic chemicals in e-cigarettes and other vaping devices Swanson is worried about. It’s also the nicotine and its impact on young people’s brains, which continue to develop into their early-to-mid 20s.
“Teens’ brains are very, very sensitive to nicotine,” she said. “So very small doses of nicotine have the ability to cause things like addiction, to cause things like psychological unrest in developing teens’ brains.”
Swanson said she worries vaping devices have more nicotine in them than an entire pack of combustible cigarettes. She added teens who vape “are more than likely going to end up with an addiction problem starting at a very young age of which they’re not even aware.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported about 1,300 lung injury cases and 26 deaths tied to the use of e-cigarettes and other vaping products across the country. In Arizona, eight cases have been reported with no deaths.
On Monday, KTAR News 92.3 FM learned a 16-year-old girl is at Phoenix Children’s Hospital recovering from a vaping-related illness. The teen went into cardiac arrest and was in a coma when she was first hospitalized Oct. 8.
She was taken off the ventilator Monday morning and is now breathing on her own. Doctors expect her to make a full recovery.
Knowing the vaping-related health concerns, the Arizona Department of Health Services launched the Facts Over Flavor campaign last December.
“We developed this campaign that’s aimed at kiddos, so 9 through 13 years of age,” said Dr. Cara Christ, the department’s director. “We’re trying to get them before they initiate vape behavior.”
The campaign includes a video series that educates youth about the harmful effects of vaping devices such as e-cigarettes, vape pens and mods.
Christ said her department came up with the campaign after learning through focus groups that kids don’t like being lied to.
“When we were telling them what was in the cartridges and that there’s cancer-causing chemicals and that there’s nicotine and they become addicted, that was information that they said would cause them to change,” she said.
One of the videos from the Facts Over Flavor campaign says even though vaping devices can have sweet flavors – including chocolate, cereal and cotton candy – they’re filled with toxic chemicals.
Another video warns young viewers not to get “locked in” to vaping and says teenagers who vape are more likely to become smokers.
Christ said her message for teens is: “If you don’t vape right now, do not start.”