Teen nicotine use in epidemic proportions

by Emerald Barney

SALT LAKE CITY – Teen usage of electronic cigarettes is expanding, with 3.6 million middle school and high school-aged teens confirming their usage in a survey conducted by the National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) in 2018. The overall number of users has increased by 1.5 million since 2017, making electronic cigarettes the number one teen used tobacco and nicotine product.

Electronic cigarettes, more commonly known as e-cigarettes, e-cigs, or vapes, were first introduced to the United States in 2007. Initially marketed as a safer alternative to smoking, e-cigarettes gained popularity among those trying to quit smoking. With the option to choose the nicotine levels in the products, e-cigs made cutting back on the habit a reality. After surviving bans on sales, regulations, and research, e-cigarettes have seen enormous commercial growth. Roughly 10.8 million American adults currently use e-cigarettes, with more than half of them being under 35 years old.

New products emerging on the market are offering smaller devices, rechargeable batteries, and new flavors. These products are appealing new consumers into the market – many of whom never smoked in the first place, creating nicotine addictions that weren’t there to begin with. Younger e-cigarette users are more likely to become addicted to nicotine and have greater difficulty quitting. They are also nearly four times more likely to start smoking cigarettes than those who do not use e-cigs. But e-cigs are becoming more popular among teens, 2018 saw a 78% increase in high school users, as it is seen as a social activity. Logan Loftis, a 19-year-old student at Utah State University does not own an e-cigarette but will vape when she’s with her friends. “People make fun of the ‘vape kids’ in high school, even though everyone does it,” she said. “It is seriously stigmatized. I think they are fun to use once in a while. They are quite comical too, but overall they can be fun to do tricks and ‘shotgun’ with friends.” Loftis recognizes the possible negative effects and is thankful she isn’t addicted to using an e-cig.

Many teens underestimate how addictive nicotine is and have low risk perceptions of products like e-cigarettes. Teens are more likely to experiment with different substances in their youth, especially if they believe that e-cigs are safer than cigarettes. Tau Mamata, 20, has been using a variety of e-cigarettes since he was 16 and purchased his own when he turned 19. “E-cigs don’t produce tar on the lungs. You’re not as likely to have lung or throat cancer,” he said.  “I just think they are overall safer, especially since you can control the amount of nicotine you inhale.” The NYTS found that 17.1 percent of teen users believe that “they are less harmful than other tobacco products such as cigarettes.”

One of Tau Mamata’s e-cigarettes photographed in April 2019. (AP Photo/Emerald Barney)

E-cigarettes don’t contain the carcinogens that tobacco cigarettes do, encouraging the belief that they are the safer option. However, e-cigarettes are not without toxins. Vape aerosol can contain toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, acrolein, and acetaldehyde – which are found in cigarette smoke and can cause irreversible lung damage. Nicotine can potentially harm adolescent brain development, particularly areas that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control.

Some brands that are popular among kids, such as JUUL, deliver especially high levels of nicotine. Users may be getting a higher concentration of toxins due to the frequency and depth of the inhalation. According to the manufacturer of JUUL, a single pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes. Teens are especially susceptible to addiction to nicotine. The risks and lack of research regarding long term use are at the forefront of the restrictions and regulations being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and state lawmakers.

The FDA has developed the Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan, targeting the prevention of youth access to tobacco products, restricting advertisements of tobacco products aimed at youth, and educating teens about the dangers of e-cigarettes. The FDA encouraged restrictions to be placed on all flavored products, excluding tobacco, mint, and menthol. The restrictions would limit flavored products to be sold in age-restricted, in-person locations, and if sold online, require strict practices for age verification. Data from the NYTS shows that 31 percent of teens who used e-cigarettes cited the availability of flavors such as candy, fruit, and chocolate as a primary reason for their continued uses of the products.

In the 2019 Utah legislative session, HB252 proposed by Rep. Paul Ray (R-Clearfield), would impose an 86 percent tax on vaping products. Ray has been trying for several years to get a tax on e-cigarettes approved to discourage teen usage. If approved, the tax could potentially generate $23.6 million each year. However, the bill failed to make it through the state senate before the 2019 session ended.

Lewie Lambros, co-owner of Vapor Dreams in Bountiful, Utah, is adamant that HB252 would be destructive to business and encourages lawmakers to enforce online sale bans. “If that bill went through it would put the vapor industry out of business,” Lambros said. “Kids have dispensable money; they don’t have bills like adults do so it’s easier for them to come up with the money.” Lambros determines that the bill would hurt business and the consumers that the products are helping. He stated that the way to eliminate teen usage to enforce punishments on teens who are caught using e-cigarettes and make access online stricter.

Teen tobacco use was nearly eradicated, but now national concern rises once again about the safety and health of the youth. Reports like those conducted by the NYTS show the concerns are justified. E-cigarettes can help encourage adult smokers to a less harmful delivery system, it just should not be at the expense of exposing a new generation to the addiction of nicotine.