Juul’s gold: Smoking alternative causes deaths

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Graphic By: Rotimi Bello
Background courtesy freepik

This week, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced there have been 450 cases in the U.S. reporting respiratory illness and six deaths linked to vaping.

With 18-24 year olds being the most regular users, the average age of the victims is 19. New York health officials found that vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent used in many vaping juices, may be to blame.

This agent is found in many candy flavoured vapes, popular among younger users.

Traditional cigarettes may be defunct in popularity today, but many youth and young adults are embracing the new trend of smoking electronic cigarettes, or vaping.

A boom in popularity began in the mid 2010’s and has skyrocketed since. Young people are taking up vaping because of cost, convenience, fun, and above all, health.

Due to aggressive marketing, e-cigarettes are generally considered to be a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. However, medical professionals say this is untrue.

Addiction is one issue prevalent with vaping. One vape pod contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, or 200 puffs. With many different flavours to try, and a reduced cost compared to cigarettes, it is easy to go through more than one pod. Dr. Sharon Levy, director of adolescent substance use and addiction program at Boston Children’s Hospital, said, “nicotine is so highly concentrated [with vaping], you can get it into your body much faster and at a much higher dose than a typical cigarette.” This can lead to addiction and dependency. Currently, Dr. Levy’s teen addiction program has three to four times the number of patients it had a year ago.

Popularity in smoking regular cigarettes has steadily decreased over the past 20 years due to diligent spreading of awareness about the serious health issues that come with it.

With fewer youth smoking cigarettes, many current smokers were also persuaded to attempt to quit.

This began the explosion of the vaping market.

While having evolved to attract an entirely new audience, vaping was originally presented as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes for current smokers to ease out of the habit.

Today, millions of youth are now storming the market, attracted by flashy new looks and fun flavours, such as crème brûlée, or Sour Patch Kids.

The modern marketing dissuading cigarettes doesn’t cover electronic smoking.

Instead, vaping is regarded as a cool, healthier, safer alternative with little to no harm or danger attached, making it much more appealing to young people. 

Adam Hergenreder, a high school student from Illinois who sustained permanent lung damage from vaping, stated why he started vaping: “It didn’t taste like a cigarette. It tasted good and gave me a little head high.”

The different flavours were appealing and he believed they were safe.

The FDA is beginning to take action against the companies that produce electronic smoking products, particularly Juul, the company responsible for selling 70% of vaping products.

The FDA criticized Juul for falsely advertising their products as “modified risk tobacco products” and further targeting youth with flavours that appeal to kids.

The FDA shared in a statement, “The law is clear that before marketing tobacco products for reduced risk, companies must demonstrate [that this is true]… Juul has ignored the law, and very concerningly, has made some of these statements in schools to our nation’s youth.”

In addition, the original intent to help cigarette smokers quit may have backfired entirely.

Studies show limited evidence that vaping is helping smokers to quit, but many youth and adults who have never tried regular cigarettes are experimenting with e-cigarettes.

Vaping may also lead non-smokers to traditional cigarettes which they may not have otherwise tried.

The European Union Tobacco Products Directive states that e-cigarettes can develop into a gateway to nicotine addiction and ultimately traditional tobacco consumption as, “they mimic and normalise the action of smoking.”

Due to the sudden e-cigarette popularity boom, regulators are scrambling to keep up and make an effective plan of action.

The FDA delayed the compliance deadline for the regulation of e-cigarette products to 2022, meaning companies like Juul will have until then to show their products are safer than regular cigarettes and they aren’t unduly targeting minors.

Some professionals believe a more imminent plan is needed to combat the crisis.

Dr. Andrew Pipe, chief of the Division of Prevention and Rehabilitation at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, believes the issues with cigarette smoking that finally subsided over the past few decades are resurfacing in the form of a flashy new alternative, putting youth most at risk in the same way cigarettes once did.

In a video series about e-cigarettes, Dr. Pipe said, “Those of us who’ve been involved in tobacco control issues for decades are astonished that we now seem to have lost sight of the lessons of the past.”

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