Let’s be clear and yell it loud from the cheap seats, any form of nicotine is a gateway to conventional smoking. It’s easy to be reassured by declining smoking rates until you are reminded that it is still the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States. And even with this long-term decline in cigarette use among youth in New York State, e-cigarette use is increasing dramatically—use of electronic nicotine delivery systems nearly doubled between 2014 and 2016. So back to the cheap seats we go, and this time with a megaphone to broadcast the fact that we are facing devastating effects of a fast-growing epidemic. It’s also problematic that e-cigarettes and other ENDS products are heavily marketed to youth, using tactics that were banned for cigarettes and Big Tobacco companies in the 1990s.
Attractive packaging, appealing flavors and other forms of savvy marketing are contributing to the proliferation of e-cigarette use with the manufacturer JUUL leading the pack. According to The Wall Street Journal, “the device is called a JUUL and it is a type of e-cigarette that delivers a powerful dose of nicotine, derived from tobacco, in a patented salt solution that smokers say closely mimics the feeling of inhaling cigarettes. It has become a coveted teen status symbol and a growing problem in high schools and middle schools, spreading with a speed that has taken teachers, parents and school administrators by surprise.” Unfortunately, e-cigarette marketing to youth is working. Use of the product is higher among high school students than adults in New York, with 43.8 percent of students having tried ENDS.
Additionally, e-cigarette manufacturers including JUUL, claim that their products are less harmful than conventional cigarettes. However, what they fail to mention is how deeply harmful their products actually are. The use of e-cigarettes and other ENDS products have been linked to serious health risks. These products emit aerosols, which contain chemicals that can lead to eye and respiratory irritation, as well as airway constriction. E-cigarettes contain flavorants that have been linked to lung disease, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, including nickel, tin and lead.
Because it’s a relatively new product we don’t yet have the benefit of long-term research but if conventional tobacco products have taught us anything, we shouldn’t wait for another decade to let the proliferation and use of e-cigarette products devastate our community, especially our youth. The time has come for us to fight back with education, advocacy and whatever is required to protect our children, youth and loved ones.
Ayo Alli is a youth engagement manager for Public Health Solutions’ NYC Smoke-Free Program, where he works to end the devastating tobacco epidemic and protect the health of all New Yorkers through advocacy and education.