Health organizations across the U.S have fought for many years to keep youth from using cigarettes and other tobacco products. Thanks to their efforts, the number of youths using cigarettes is reaching an all-time low.
Unfortunately, that progress is being threatened by a new, dangerous practice: electronic cigarettes.
What are e-cigarettes?
Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, are battery-operated devices that heat up liquid to create a vapor. The user inhales this vapor, which typically contains nicotine, flavorings and other harmful additives. E-cigarettes can also be used to inhale marijuana and other drugs. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
“I don’t believe that they were made to do that,” said Erica Keppers, nursing supervisor at Wadena County Public Health. “That’s how they were advertised, but it has not been proven to be an effective cessation tool.”
In order to be approved by the FDA, a product has to go through a rigorous approval process with several clinical trials and regulations for labeling, packaging and more. This ensures the product is safe to use and is effective.
E-cigarettes have not been through this process, meaning there are no regulations to keep their advertising and labeling in check. For instance, some e-cigarettes advertised as being nicotine free have, in fact, been found to contain nicotine.
“When an e-juice is tested for nicotine, it is not always what is stated on the bottle,” Erica said.
E-cigarettes may help some to quit smoking, but it has not been proven. In fact, Erica said that the use of e-cigarettes often leads to increased tobacco use because it offers a way for people to use multiple types of tobacco. For example, some might use regular cigarettes when off the job but use e-cigarettes at work where cigarettes are not allowed.
Another large misconception about e-cigarettes is that they do not contain nicotine or contain less nicotine that regular cigarettes. This is false.
One of the most popular brands called JUUL uses liquid pods to create its aerosol. One JUUL pod contains the same amount of nicotine as one pack of cigarettes.
Youth numbers are rising
One of the most alarming facts of e-cigarettes is that youth are being swayed by the marketing and are deciding to try e-cigarettes, with many thinking them harmless when not used every day.
A recent national report by the National Institutes of Health showed that the percentage of U.S. high school seniors who used e-cigarettes in the last year increased from 27.8 percent in 2017 to 37.3 percent in 2018.
And in December, the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, M.D., declared the current trend of e-cigarette use among youth to be an epidemic.
So why are so many youth using e-cigarettes?
For one, they are easier to hide and easier to use. JUUL e-cigarettes look like a large USB flash drive, giving it a cool aesthetic that’s appealing to young people. It’s also easy for them to take a quick hit undetected and then hide the e-cigarettes in their palms or sleeves. The minimal smoke helps.
“For some of them, there is no smoke emission, so it’s much easier if used in a bathroom stall,” Erica said. “If you use regular cigarettes, there will be smoke. You can smell that. Now, with electronic cigarettes, it just smells like perfume or like food. A lot of the body sprays that the youth use these days smell like that. Therefore, you can’t tell if they were just using an electronic cigarette or if they’re wearing that type of body spray.”
These statistics are concerning because a young adult’s brain does not fully develop until around age 25. As children grow, their developing brains are more susceptible to addiction than adults. By exposing their brains to nicotine, they risk developing mood disorders, nicotine addiction and permanent brain damage or developmental issues. E-cigarette use in youth is also linked to the use of other tobacco products or other drugs such as alcohol and marijuana.
Fighting the fight locally
E-cigarettes are a nationwide problem and affect local areas as well. According to Erica, “Every school that I’ve talked to in the area has seen electronic cigarettes in their schools.”
Erica devotes many hours to educating the public about e-cigarettes and the dangers by traveling to schools and businesses in the county to give presentations.
She and her colleagues from Todd and Morrison counties have a Tobacco Free Communities (TFC) grant funded by the Minnesota Department of Health. The goal of the TFC grant is to raise awareness and reduce and prevent youth tobacco use in all three counties. They’re also partnering with local health care systems, such as Tri-County Health Care, to conduct a Community Health Needs Assessment to determine the important health needs of the local area.
Erica said she’s also seen enthusiasm from local high schoolers who want to raise awareness on the topic. This includes a group at Wadena-Deer Creek schools that is coming up with a presentation on the dangers of e-cigarettes to give to seventh and eighth graders.
For more information on e-cigarettes, visit e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov.
Watch for next week’s blog post, which will continue the conversation about e-cigarettes by taking a look at how they are affecting local communities.