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In no time, addictive e-cigarettes have sucked our kids in

Traditional smoking among teens is down, but e-cigarettes, or vaping, are way up, and they aren’t safe either.
Traditional smoking among teens is down, but e-cigarettes, or vaping, are way up, and they aren’t safe either. AP

Recently Juul Labs started running full-page ads in newspapers across the country announcing its product is for adults and it is on a mission to “improve lives.” While the Juuling phenomenon has drawn nationwide attention, our youth have been Juuling in classrooms and homes since 2015. You can look back at Juul’s extensive social media and youth centric marketing to shed light on its contagious spread.

The story of JUUL is quite remarkable – launched as an unknown product in 2015 with a sleek, high-tech, flash-drive design, this product has captured 74 percent of the electronic-cigarette (also called vaping) market. Now the FDA and the NC Attorney General are knocking at Juul’s door with questions and public health concerns.

One of public health’s greatest successes has been the steady decline in use of combustible tobacco (e.g., cigarettes, cigars), however the rising use of electronic cigarettes (also a tobacco product) among youth could reverse this trend. The 2018 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Drug Survey, with 10,000 youth participating, shows high school youth smoking cigarettes at an all-time low of 5.1 percent, however one in five (19.6 percent) high school youth are currently using e-cigs with white teens using at the highest rates (34 percent). The 2017 North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey shows that 39.6 percent of our 12th graders statewide are vaping.

While many youth and parents think Juul delivers harmless flavored water (in your choice of Crème Brule, Mango, Fruit Medley, Mint or Cool Cucumber flavors), the product contains a high level of addictive nicotine. One Juul pod (the insertable piece with liquid heated by a battery) has the nicotine equivalency of one pack, or 20 cigarettes.

Nicotine can change the way an adolescent brain (forming until age 25) is wired. Exposure to nicotine alters the brain’s reward system and can prime adolescents for addiction not only to nicotine but to other substances. The Centers for Disease Control states that teens who vape are seven times more likely to start smoking traditional combustible tobacco than teens who don’t. The products are clearly not safe for young people.

Harm reduction advocates state that e-cigs have fewer toxic chemicals than cigarettes. That may be true, since a lit cigarette contains 7,000 chemicals. However, safer does not mean safe. The new FDA restrictions on these devices will make it more difficult for our youth to access them. Still, parents, educators, health professionals and youth influencers must learn more about these products and talk with our teens. The local youth drug survey showed that teens were 70 percent less likely to vape if their peers disapprove.

Mecklenburg County Public Health is committed to leading this community conversation to drive change. In public health, we envision a community where youth and adults breathe clean air and are free of addiction. These products do not have a place in either.

Gibbie Harris is the Director of the Mecklenburg County Public Health Department. Email: gibbie.harris@mecknc.gov
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