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What you need to know about e-cigarettes

April 16, 2014

R.J. Reynolds Corporation (makers of Camel cigarettes) knew as early as the 1970’s that almost 90 percent of smokers start to smoke before the age of 18. In fact, Reynolds’ marketing vice president wrote that “ represent tomorrow’s cigarette business. As 14-24 age group matures, they will account for a key share of the total cigarette volume for at least the next 25 years.” He wanted to make “direct advertising appeal to the younger smokers” and Joe Camel came to life as a carefully crafted cartoon rocker. Camel sales to young people skyrocketed.

Fast forward to 2014. The hip rocker cartoon figure of Joe Camel is gone. Direct advertising of cigarettes has been replaced by warnings of the dangers of tobacco. Smoking in youths has decreased by 50%. Sadly, the latest smokes, advertised even more glamorously than conventional cigarettes ever were, are electronic cigarettes, also known as “e-cigarettes,” “e-cigs” or “vapes.” These are billed as a “safe” way to smoke. They come in flavors like pina colada and cotton candy. The liquid they vaporize for the user to inhale is called “juice.” They are advertised by sexy media stars.

But are they safe?

Electronic cigarettes contain liquid that is vaporized by an electric current to produce flavored smoke with or without nicotine (nicotine is HIGHLY addictive, and many “juices” that claim to be free of nicotine actually contain small amounts of it). One of the chemicals in the “juice” produces the white plume of smoke that makes it look like the user is smoking a conventional cigarette. Electronic-cigarettes even glow like a real cigarette. They come in sexy black or in pretty colored patterns.  They can be ordered online by anyone who clicks the “I am 18 or over” button.

E-cigarettes are defended as a safe way to smoke. They may satisfy nicotine addiction without the cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco. However, recent studies show that electronic cigarettes may not help smokers quit conventional smoking at all. The newest research shows that the vapor from electronic cigarettes contains cancer-causing chemicals that are not found in traditional cigarette smoke, and the vapor from e-cigarettes deposits nicotine and cancer-causing substances on surfaces around the e-smoker. This could be just as bad as traditional “second-hand smoke” if not worse.

The more important questions facing parents is, “what about those who are just getting started?“ In 2012, almost 2 million US school children (as young as age 11) had used e-cigarettes. That is an increase of 50% from 2011. Even more concerning is that last year’s National Youth Tobacco Survey found that 76.3 percent of middle and high school students who used electronic cigarettes within the past 30 days also smoked conventional cigarettes during that same period. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that “this raises concern that there may be young people for whom e-cigarettes could be an entry point to use of conventional tobacco products, including cigarettes.” To be clear, no studies (yet) show that electronic cigarette use will lead to smoking conventional cigarettes in our children. However, it makes sense that children who “vape” nicotine-containing “juice” will become addicted to nicotine, just like conventional smokers. It is a short step to trying other forms of nicotine, including smokeless tobacco, hookah (also mistakenly considered safe by young people), and conventional cigarettes and cigars. If three quarters of children who “vape” also smoke conventional cigarettes, and “vaping” in children has increased by 50% in a year, well, you do the math.

So, what do we do as parents?

First, we MUST talk openly with our children. Why inhale hot vapors of anything? Just because it is flavored “vivid vanilla,” is it safe to breathe into your lungs? Just because other people do it, does it make it right or good or safe? Just because something is “cool” does it mean you should do it? Just because something is sold and “they say” it is safe, does that make it worth buying and consuming?

These are critical lessons we need to teach our children about all sorts of things. We also have to be good role models; don’t  smoke, or, if you do, QUIT!  Save your own life and your child’s. Maintain a smoke-free home, including vape smoke. Pay attention to who your children hang out with and what they do. Assert some control. Make sure that your children know that most people DO NOT smoke.  Many kids think that most people do, so it must be okay. Talk to your children about nicotine and addiction.

There are wonderful resources for helping parents address smoking and e-cigarettes with their children. I love the data on the CDC’s website. Also, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has some super information for talking with your children about smoking.

Parents cannot be naïve. There are businesses out there willing to sell us and our children all sorts of things that are not good for us. It is our responsibility to teach our children well, so that they can sort through the glamorous advertising and make safe, wise choices for themselves.

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