Earlier today, the governor’s office announced some startling statistics on the use of e-cigarettes.
Statewide, youth report that in the last 30 days, 8 percent of eighth-graders, 18 percent of 10th-graders and 23 percent of 12th-graders have used electronic cigarettes, also called e-cigs and or vape pens. For eighth- and 10th-graders, this is more than twice the rate that they smoke tobacco.
But aren’t e-cigarettes supposed to be a “safer” alternative to traditional cigarettes that actually help people quit smoking? What’s the problem with our youth using these products?
I would like to provide the facts behind five common myths you may have heard about e-cigarettes:
They are safe. E-cigarettes are not regulated, which means that no standards exist for what they contain. Labeling is also not required, so when you use an e-cigarette, you don’t really know what you’re inhaling.
Especially concerning is the increase in calls made to the Washington State Poison Control Center about accidental ingestion of e-cigarettes liquid solution (e-juice). The Washington Poison Center reports an increase in calls related to vaping fluid from two in 2010 to 182 in 2014. Of the 133 calls related to children, 82 percent involved 1-3 year olds. In Pierce County alone, calls from residents to the state Poison Control Center concerning e-cigarettes increased 15-fold – a 1,500 percent increase – from two in 2012 to 29 in 2014. Even one ounce of this liquid can be fatal to young children.
They are not addictive. E-cigarettes do indeed contain nicotine. That means they are addictive like cigarettes. Nicotine is harmful to youth because it impacts normal brain development.
They will help you quit smoking cigarettes. It’s been said that e-cigarettes will help you quit smoking regular cigarettes, but not enough research exists to know if that’s accurate. Instead, studies suggest a more harmful connection: many youth smoke e-cigarettes in addition to regular cigarettes. And, many kids start using regular tobacco after they get hooked on e-cigarettes.
They are hard to get. E-cigarettes were fairly expensive and hard to find several years ago. Today, you can get them at most convenience stores at an affordable price. In Pierce County, you must be 18 to purchase these products. Because enforcement of this regulation is not funded, the reality is that many stores are selling these products to our kids. E-cigarettes are not taxed like regular cigarettes, adding to their affordability for youth.
They don’t produce harmful secondhand smoke. When an e-cigarette user exhales the vapor, toxic metals and nicotine are released into the environment, posing a potential hazard to bystanders. When compared to traditional cigarettes, it appears that these emissions could be less dangerous, but we don’t yet have any research to back this claim.
They don’t market to children. E-cigarette juices come in a variety of flavors meant to appeal to youth – like chocolate and cotton candy. Big tobacco companies such as R.J. Reynolds are now in the e-cigarette business. They know that if kids start using when they’re young, they’re more likely to use as adults. This creates a sustainable market for their product.
Manufacturers spend a great amount of money promoting inaccurate information about e-cigarette use and vapors and their effects. Those of us who care about the health of our youth need to take action.
As a member of Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health, I am invested in our mission to safeguard and enhance the health of Pierce County communities. And as a doctor, I want residents to know that e-cigarettes and vapors are unhealthy and their safety is unproven. Use of these products is dangerous for everyone, and especially youth.
We will continue to support education and policy efforts to decrease youth tobacco and nicotine use as well the impacts of second hand smoke. To learn more about the effects of e-cigarettes, go to www.tpchd.org/ecigarettes.
Dr. Stephen Cook is a Tacoma-based family practice physician at Paladina Health and a Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health member.