Opinion

‘I saw very little harm in something that I had been taught very little about.’ We do.

The risk of e-cigarettes for young people

This video from the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General advises parents to "Know the Risks," and highlights how e-cigarettes have the potential to cause lasting harm to the health of young users, especially their brain development.
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This video from the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General advises parents to "Know the Risks," and highlights how e-cigarettes have the potential to cause lasting harm to the health of young users, especially their brain development.

Let’s start with the good news: Binge drinking has dropped among Washington teens over the last decade; adolescent marijuana use hasn’t risen since 2002, despite the state’s more liberalized pot laws; and traditional cigarette smoking among young people is less than half the level of 10 years ago.

Results from the 2018 Washington Healthy Youth Survey, released this week, should help parents sleep a little better, right?

Maybe not. The positive trends are offset by a staggering increase in teenage vaping.

The survey confirms what should be apparent to those who monitor their kids’ social media accounts: Today’s teens are getting hooked on the smooth nicotine rush, easy availability and sociable youth-culture vibe of flavored electronic cigarettes.

How pervasive is it? The percentage of surveyed Washington 10th graders who said they’d vaped in the previous month shot up like a rocket in just two years, from 13 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2018. Youth use is even more prevalent in Whatcom County, where 27 percent of 10th graders and 38 percent of 12th graders reported sucking on vapor products in the previous 30 days.

If the survey doesn’t make moms and dads toss and turn, it should at least motivate them to talk to their kids about the serious health and addiction consequences.

It also should prod state lawmakers to adopt stricter age restrictions on vaping and tobacco products.

Legislation that would lift the minimum legal age of sale from 18 to 21 has passed the House and awaits action in the Senate. Testimony before the Ways & Means Committee this month overwhelmingly supported House Bill 1074.

Nobody was more compelling than Madison Langer, a high school senior from Clark County. She described being drawn into the vaping scene at age 15 when her best friend offered her a Cap’n Crunch flavored e-cig.

“It was beautifully chrome colored and it smelled amazing,” said Madison, now an anti-smoking ambassador. “I saw very little harm in something that I had been taught very little about.”

She said students often retreat to restrooms to vape during class — her school eventually removed bathroom doors as a countermeasure — and it’s a “rite of passage” for 18-year-old students to buy prohibited items for underage schoolmates.

The Senate testimony included a couple of surprise supporters. One was a spokeswoman for Juul Labs, the company that aims to switch adult smokers to its vaping products but has been roundly criticized for manufacturing items that entice kids. The other was a Washington vape shop owner who said the bill doesn’t go far enough.

When industry representatives go on the record for stronger age limits, preserving the status quo looks more and more like a losing bet.

The growing body of scientific evidence makes clear that nicotine is harmful, especially to young people, whether inhaled through a combustible cigarette or an e-juice vapor that tastes like bubble gum or breakfast cereal. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined the chemical impairs attention, learning, mood and impulse control in the adolescent brain, which continues to develop past age 20.

Last September, the Food and Drug Administration characterized teen vaping as an “epidemic,” and last week, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb proposed new rules requiring stores to create separate adults-only rooms for flavored e-cigarettes. But Gottlieb is on his way out and the FDA’s policy direction is uncertain.

State officials would be foolish to hold their breath waiting. Aggressive steps of their own are warranted.

They should act boldly to restrict smoking and vaping to those 21 and older. That not only means raising the age limit and enforcing it at retail stores; it also requires tenacious negotiations with sovereign Indian tribes so they enforce compliance at their shops, too.

As long as Washington keeps cranking out young drug addicts, regardless of delivery device, none of us should sleep too soundly.

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