The vaping epidemic: E-cigarettes luring young users
BULLHEAD CITY — Erika Mansur is on a mission.
That mission is to arm young people with the information they need to make good decisions about e-cigarettes.
Mansur, Arizona assistant attorney general, gave a presentation Thursday on youth e-cigarette use and the associated health risks.
Youth are using the items, Mansur said, despite it being illegal for those younger than 18.
Some high-school students who are of age have been known to obtain them for underaged classmates, and that some students have turned selling them into a moneymaking enterprise, she said.
Teen vaping has increased by 75 percent in the past year, Mansur said.
“The FDA is calling it an epidemic,” she said. “They don’t just throw that word around.”
The earliest e-cigarettes, Mansur said, resembled traditional cigarettes. Models out now vary in size, shape and color, although each has a battery, a heating element and a reservoir for the vaping liquid.
Some units that she showed those attending the forum resembled flash drives or highlighters.
Mansur said that young people who vape have some misconceptions about the activity, namely that there is no nicotine and that e-cigarettes are not addictive.
A traditional cigarette contains 1 to 2 milligrams of nicotine, but a pouch of vaping liquid could contain 50 milligrams — 1.5 to two packs’ worth, she said.
A teen who uses a pod or so is “basically a two-pack-a-day smoker,” Mansur said. “They don’t think of themselves as smokers.”
Young people who vape are doing it at a greater frequency than smokers, she said, and that teen tobacco use starts off sporadic and slowly increases as the person gets older. But among those who vape, nearly half do so at least three times a week.
“They’re quickly moving from experimental use or occasional use to regular use,” Mansur said.
One teen responding to a survey on vaping talked about not feeling like he constantly used his e-cigarette, but mentioned going into the bathroom to vape every two hours, which is about how long nicotine stays in one’s system, Mansur said.
Another respondent went without vaping for two days and reported that it was “all I could think about.”
The addiction, Mansur said, is related to unlabeled nicotine. Only 18 percent of vape products, are labeled as containing nicotine, but an analysis of vaping liquids confiscated at Arizona schools showed that 94 percent of them contained the substance, often at dangerously high levels.
Some vaping liquids also contain other hazardous substances — including those labeled by the Food and Drug Administration as safe to eat, though not safe for inhalation, Mansur said, likening the distinction to the difference between putting water in one’s stomach and in one’s lungs.
One such substance, she said, is diacetyl, commonly found in microwave popcorn. Inhalation of diacetyl has been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, a disease that obstructs airways in the lungs. According to Mansur, 75 percent of sweet-flavored vaping liquids tested contained diacetyl.
Besides chemicals put into vape products by manufacturers, Mansur said, other items may be added by users.
“If a friend hands you a vape pen, there’s really no way of knowing what kind of liquid is in there,” she said, adding that there have been reports of THC oils and synthetic marijuana liquids being added.
The dangers of vaping, Mansur said, extend beyond the chemical ones. Vaping pens almost exclusively are made in China, with little oversight, and that the batteries can be volatile.
Mansur showed a video and photos of people injured by exploding batteries.
One tactic Mansur takes when talking about the subject to teens is showing the connections between vape manufacturers and mainstream tobacco companies; she also discusses marketing strategies aimed at young people. The companies frequently use mascots such as aliens and unicorns and benefit from third-party efforts at making vaping seem like part of a “lifestyle,” she said.
Mansur also covered vaping-related nicotine poisoning, efforts by the attorney general’s office to reduce youth tobacco use and vaping, retailer education and other topics.
The FDA plans to require strict limits on the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes, including age verification controls for online sales, in an effort to curtail their use among children and teenagers.
The new policy will apply to flavored cartridge-style vaping products like Juul that have become popular among youths, not the open tank-style systems sold in vape shops and mostly used by adults, officials said.
No retail outlets will be allowed to carry them unless it restricts minors from entering the store or creates an off-limits area.
Also Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced plans to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes as soon as next year, possibly making his state the first to prohibit such vaping products often marketed as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
Lynda LaVerne said she attended the Bullhead City presentation because she had attended a recent Bullhead City Police Department class for citizens that touched on the topic and she wanted to learn more.
“There was a lot of information,” LaVerne said. “I’m glad they’re putting it out there.”
She said she’s pleased to see authorities working to address youth e-cigarette use after it took decades to get health warnings put on traditional cigarette packs.
Mansur and an Arizona Department of Health Services official are traveling the state to educate young people on e-cigs, the various vaping products and that they are addictive.
She said she wants to help parents and school administrators to be aware of the scope of the problem and able to recognize the equipment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report