A friend of mine confided that her teenaged son had been caught vaping e-cigarettes. He shrugged it off as “no big deal” because he wasn’t smoking cigarettes—or pot. But my friend was worried. Were e-cigarettes addictive? And what exactly is in that vapor, anyway? I set out to find out. And what I learned scared the hell out of me.
Kids who try vaping e-cigarettes are six times more likely to start smoking than those who don’t. Plus, the vapor can contain toxic chemicals. First off, there’s smoking itself—the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, costing us an annual $132 million in health care expenses because of the 16 million Americans who currently suffer from a smoking-related disease. Yet 44 million Americans—one-sixth of our total population—still smoke.
Including teenagers. Although smoking had been trending down for the past few years, e-cigarette use is dramatically increasing among teens: Last year 260,000 middle and high school students tried vaping, an increase of 300% from 2011.
Of course, this makes sense: E-cigarettes are small—about the size of a pen—and can be charged by plugging into a USB port. Turn on the battery and they heat up a liquid inside to create a vapor that’s then inhaled.
From a kid’s perspective, vaping e-cigarettes gives you a quick bump of nicotine without the tell-tale smell of smoke that gets you busted. Hundreds of vape flavors—positioned as e-juice—include everything from bubblegum to mint chocolate chip ice cream. It’s a rebellious teenager’s dream. But here’s the kicker: According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, kids who try vaping are six times more likely to start smoking than those who don’t.
The cigarette industry would like you to believe otherwise: In fact, a recent article in The Week quoted industry mouthpiece Cynthia Cabrera of the Smoke Free Alternative Trade Association as promoting the health benefits of transitioning smokers to vapers.
Yes, e-cigarettes are free of the tar, arsenic, benzene, vinyl chloride and other carcinogens released when tobacco is burned. But because e-cigarettes are not regulated, there’s really no telling what’s in their vapor. Although all of the liquids contain nicotine, they’re formulated with different chemicals that depend on the brand—some even contain diethylene glycol, found in antifreeze.
It’s that kind of information that makes me wonder why the Food and Drug Administration isn’t better regulating e-cigarettes, which were first created and sold in China in 2004 and reached our shores about two years later. In 2009, the FDA unsuccessfully tried to ban e-cigarettes; last year, they reclassified them as “tobacco products” and restricted sales to minors.
Even with that classification, e-cigarettes circumvent restrictions on traditional cigarette manufacturers who for the past 20 years haven’t been allowed to establish product placement deals with filmmakers—because of these kinds of deals, e-cigarettes will be seen in six upcoming films, according to The Week. At this point, warning labels on e-cigarettes are entirely voluntary—and a New York Times article reports suspicions that the industry warnings are merely an attempt to reduce liability.
Warnings haven’t slowed down the industry, which reported $6 billion in U.S. sales in 2013, to an official estimate of six million American vapers—not to mention off-the-books teens. So talk to your kids, please. Because e-cigarettes are definitely a big deal.