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Teen vaping epidemic hits home: Michael K. McIntyre

September 23, 2018

Teen vaping epidemic hits home: Michael K. McIntyre

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said this month it is getting serious about keeping vaping products out of the hands of underage students.

Their use of devices like Juul brand e-cigarettes has become an “epidemic” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. And it’s clear these devices, which some use as a less dangerous alternative for people who already smoke cigarettes, are being marketed to young people who have never smoked.

Enticed by flavors like Mango, Birthday Cake and Fruit Medley (there are 7,000 different flavors), and unaware of the risk of nicotine addiction, teens are powering up electronic cigarettes when they’d never think about lighting up a smoke.

I had to find out more, so I spent some time talking to a local high school senior. What she told me was frightening.

About half of the young people she knows in her suburban neighborhood vape. Gas stations are easy places to buy the “pods” of flavored, nicotine laced e-juice or vape juice that becomes vapor delivering nicotine. Sometimes they don’t ask for ID, sometimes an 18-year-old will buy and re-sell at a markup: “They’re $16. You just give them a $20 and they keep the rest.”

The flavors are enticing, unlike cigarettes, which are disgusting.

“The mint flavor. It feels so fresh. It doesn’t feel like you are doing anything wrong because it doesn’t taste wrong,” she told me. “It tastes like you’re brushing your teeth.”

Kids “Juul” (it’s become a verb) not  just for the taste, but for the buzz. They deny they’re addicted while using like addicts. “Some do it every hour or they get a massive headache,” she said.

And at 17, she admitted having vaped, and quit, herself. Underclassmen, she said, are influenced greatly by upperclassmen.

“It’s just an epidemic,” she said. “because they want to be cool.”

She’s a pretty insightful kid. But I’m biased.

She’s my daughter.

And, yeah, some of it was tough to hear. I wanted to yell at her and I really wanted to ground her.

But I tried to suppress my hypocritical tendencies, remembering that I took my guitar-lesson money in high school and used it to buy packs of Newports that we smoked on the railroad tracks. I stopped young, too. The smokes made me sick. I should have stuck with the guitar.

What my wife and I did was listen to her and talk. We went through the health ramifications of nicotine addiction and the unknowns effects of vapor. We explained that vaping doesn’t show independence, it shows acquiescence to groupthink and marketing.

We were preaching to the choir, we hope.

But our daughter is like a lot of sons and daughters in this country who have engaged in what Dr. Gottlieb called an “almost ubiquitous -- and dangerous -- trend.”

The FDA conducted an undercover sting and found retailers willing to sell to underage kids. Many got warning letters. Those kinds of actions need to be continuous and costly for scofflaws.

The FDA is giving Juul and other manufacturers 60 days to develop plans to keep teens from smoking and they’re cracking down on retailers who sell to kids who aren’t yet 18. The companies say they’re all for that and their products are safer alternatives to smoking, used by smokers to kick the habit.

Said Gottlieb:  “The FDA cannot tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a trade off for enabling adults to access these products.” If that means banning flavors, so be it. If it means pulling products from shelves, that’s not out of the realm either.

This isn’t about the individual liberties of adults. Smoke ‘em if you got ’em, as long as I don’t have to breath the exhaust. And if you want to vape, vape away. But, come on, don’t suck kids into it. There are plenty of regulations on cigarettes (no flavors allowed, except menthol, for example) that could apply to e-cigarettes if need be.

Online commerce can be more tightly regulated.

And another smart move would be to raise the age for purchase all smoking and vaping products from 18 to 21, cutting out the profit for straw purchasers. Sorry, enterprising seniors. You’ll have to mow some lawns instead. In Cleveland and Akron, the age limit is 21. Cleveland Heights City Council is considering such a move, too.

All of those things are key.

And even as we try to get a handle on keeping young people from nicotine addiction comes word from the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that nearly 1 in 11 students have used marijuana in electronic cigarettes.

As important as any regulatory action is for parents to educate ourselves.

And talk to our kids.

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