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Safer than smoking? Why teenage vaping is a big concern

Teens are increasingly getting hooked on vaping, with the numbers doubling in Connecticut. Are quitting methods the same as traditional tobacco products? What impact does vaping have on our teenagers?

Connecticut teens are turning to nicotine in numbers not seen in decades. The fact that nearly all of them favor vaping devices over traditional cigarettes has health officials raising the alarm.

“There is no other way to say it…these devices [e-cigarettes and vape pens] are dangerous,” said Kevin Twohig, MD, a pulmonologist with Northeast Medical Group who is based in North Haven. “The American Lung Association is on the record as saying that we are at risk of losing another generation to tobacco through these devices.”

The University of Michigan conducted a national survey in late 2017 that found 11 percent of high school seniors and 3.5 percent of eighth-graders admitted to vaping with nicotine in a one-month period. A Yale University study found that one in four Connecticut high-school students reported having tried an e-cigarette. A common theme found among the survey respondents is that teens think vaping is harmless. These figures represent a year-to-year increase of 10 percent from 2013 to 2015 and come as traditional smoking rates have fallen to their lowest point in over 40 years.

“The data is clear,” Dr. Twohig said. “We’re at historic lows in terms of traditional smoking. But the use of these e-cigarettes has been enough to reverse that decline recently. It’s like we’ve gone back to the 1930s and ‘40s.”

Vaping involves the inhaling of a vapor created by a device that heats a liquid. The liquid in question goes by many names and is sold by several brands, but they all contain a combination of nicotine, glycerol and flavoring chemicals. An article in The New England Journal of Medicine contends that the nicotine found in vaping liquids is far more potent than that in loose-leaf tobacco.

While vaping device manufacturers claim their products are a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes and can help smokers quit tobacco, health officials caution that the opposite may be true.

“The health risks of these devices are unknown at this time,” Dr. Twohig said. “Nobody is saying, definitively, that vaping is safe for cigarette cessation. The data does not support that. Users think they’re a ‘safe alternative’ to smoking, but nicotine is nicotine. It is a drug and it is incredibly addictive. These devices allow users to consume more nicotine, in more potent doses, which is exceptionally dangerous.”

With over 70 percent of the market under its belt, according to a Wells Fargo Securities analysis, Juul has emerged as the corporate face of vaping in the U.S. The company has come under fire recently with reports that it specifically markets its products to children. These allegations stem from Juul’s flavors like mango and bubblegum, which some argue are child-friendly. The controversy is similar to the one outlined in the 1997 Federal Trade Commission case that led R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to remove the Camel Joe character from all advertising as it was found to be targeting minors.

Paul Sygall, MD, a pain management specialist at Greenwich Hospital recently joined a group of experts at a Greenwich High School Parent Teacher Association panel discussion about the topic. Dr. Sygall explained that nicotine, while highly addictive, produces a stimulant effect causing the user’s breathing to become more rapid and shallow and increasing the heart rate and blood pressure. A single Juul pod contains 59mg/ml of nicotine, which is the same as an entire pack of traditional cigarettes.

“It can be hard for teachers and parents to stay ahead of the curve because the devices are emerging incredibly fast,” Dr. Twohig said. “Juul hasn’t been around very long, and it looks just like a flash drive. Kids bring them to school and puff on them when the teacher isn’t looking. If the teacher doesn’t know that the device inserted into a laptop is a Juul being charged via the USB port, then they don’t protest because they don’t know.”

The increasing numbers and questions about the negative impact vaping has on the human body has led U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams to officially weigh in. This past December Dr. Adams issued the office’s fourth advisory in the last 10 years stating, “I am officially declaring e-cigarette use [vaping] among youth an epidemic in the United States.”

Doctors are urging parents to have frank discussions with their children. They stress that parents should present truthful information about vaping and why it is harmful.

“Education, education, and more education is the key,” Dr. Twohig said. “Look to the American Lung Association, the CDC and the University of Michigan study. Those are all great sources of information that you can use when discussing this. It’s important to have these discussions because vaping is a real threat to public health.”