#teentalk e-cigarettes: just another smokescreen?

Tucked inconspicuously among the gum and candy at your grocery checkout lane, electronic cigarettes resemble just another benign, last-minute purchase option. Like a covert, tactical military maneuver, e-cigs and their many battery-operated brethren have managed to infiltrate not only our  state, but also the mouths of thousands of middle and high school Oklahoma students. These “electronic vaping devices” are mechanisms that heat up liquid nicotine, turning it into a chemical vapor that is inhaled and exhaled. They would like you to believe they are as harmless as their neighboring sugar-free gum and lip balm, but numerous health and regulatory agencies disagree.

Currently free of federal regulation, the liquid in these nicotine-loaded cigarette-look-alikes has been found to contain chemicals as diverse as diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze, and formaldehyde. While federal and state regulations attempt to catch up with this new product, the companies that produce the devices are aggressively scrambling for their share of the market, gaining a large, loyal, and potentially addicted, underage consumer base in the process.

It’s one thing for an adult to make a decision about his or her own health or lifestyle when fully informed of the facts and risks. It’s a very different thing for a minor, or an adult for that matter, to make a decision based on misleading and obfuscating marketing campaigns, with little or no real understanding of potential health consequences. Unhampered by pesky laws, manufacturers and retailers are free to imply that “vaping” (using e-cigarettes and related products) is a safer and healthier alternative to smoking, or that these devices may even help you quit tobacco (a claim that has not yet been proven.) While waiting for federal and state regulatory agencies to rein them in, the vapor companies are raking in serious profits from the sale of their watermelon, bubble gum and vanilla-flavored e-cigs to your minor child, something that is completely legal in this state and many others.

Big tobacco is very happy about this new turn of events. So happy, in fact, it’s laughing its way to the bank. Yep, the big tobacco companies own a hefty share of the new e-cigarette market; a good investment, seeing as it is growing exponentially, conveniently unencumbered by the extra taxes and regulations meant to curtail the sale and use of tobacco.

Terry L. Cline, the Oklahoma Commissioner of Health, is concerned about the growing use of e-cigarettes by minors. “We’re all eagerly awaiting the F.D.A.’s ruling on this,” he told me in a recent interview. “The concern I have is that we have a lot of people using this product, and they’re putting chemicals into their bodies, and we don’t really know what the impact of those chemicals will be on the body short term and long term.” Cline offers this advice, “My word at this point is a word of caution. I would strongly advise people not to use this product inside and not around children and pregnant women. Think about waiting until we know the risks associated with this.”

Cline noted that there appears to be an even higher percentage of younger people using e-cigarettes in Oklahoma than in the rest of the nation. “So, it’s very troubling…I’m very concerned about the addictive properties of nicotine…Nicotine is not being added as a flavoring. Why is nicotine being introduced to this product? We know it’s because it’s addictive.”

While Oklahoma’s efforts to curb tobacco use in the state have met with success, Cline worries that the introduction of e-cigarettes could undo some of these gains. “We’ve been very successful at decreasing tobacco use in our state and in the country, and we’ve changed the social norm…When you go to the mall, when you go to a restaurant or a movie theater, people aren’t smoking tobacco. Now we have this product that people feel at liberty to activate anywhere, anytime, and people who would not have started smoking, because we’ve done a good job of educating about the risks, might take up this product because they see it as cool and hip and the ‘in’ thing to do. Because the data aren’t clear, they feel like they have a green light…I worry that we have people who take up this product that would never have taken up tobacco at all.”

Oklahoma and the Federal Government are currently considering legislation that would regulate the manufacture and sale of e-cigarettes. In the meantime, concerns continue to mount about the health risks, while (traditional) cigarette smoking continues to be the leading preventable cause of disease in this country. In the interim, Cline encourages “people to wait until they have information about the risks. Arm yourself with the facts.” Information can be found online at www.ok.gov or www.cdc.gov.

“I hear people say repeatedly, ‘well, it’s less harmful than tobacco.’ Well, tobacco is less harmful than meth. I’m not going to recommend that you smoke tobacco since it’s less harmful than meth, and the same is true for this.”

For Oklahomans of any age trying to quit the tobacco habit, visit Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline: 1-800-Quit-Now.

JulieJulie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.

Categories: Tweens & Teens