This year, an estimated 1.3 million teenagers became addicted to nicotine, according to a new study published by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. While drug and alcohol use is down among youth, a spike in vaping is alarming and deserves attention.
Despite billions spent on ad campaigns against smoking, a more efficient and popular way to develop and fix a hankering for nicotine — the e-cigarette — has soared in popularity, particularly among teenagers.
The Food and Drug Administration and Surgeon General have tried their best to keep e-cigarettes — namely, the absurdly popular Juul brand — out of kids’ possession. But the percentage of 12th-grade students who reported vaping nicotine in the past month has doubled since 2017.
Even worse, kids likely won’t grow out of vaping, nor will e-cigarettes be their sole nicotine source. According to another recent study, use of e-cigarettes is tied to current cigarette use and is an indicator of future cigarette addition.
The FDA enacted a regulation on e-cigarettes in 2016 that banned the sale of e-cigarettes with nicotine to those younger than 18. Yet, because Michigan has no state law affirming that regulation, law enforcement can’t keep kids from purchasing the nicotine-delivery devices.
Though e-cigarettes may help some adults quit entirely by gradually lowering their dependence on nicotine, children and young adults who get hooked are at a higher risk of negatively affecting their health.
According to the Surgeon General’s report, youth exposure to nicotine stunts brain growth and increases likelihood for other addictions in the future. And to say that e-cigarettes are a healthy alternative to smoking is only partly true. The chemicals used in vaping liquids can alter DNA and also contain known cancer-causing compounds.
Earlier this year, Juul, which was actively targeting young people through advertisement campaigns, shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts and halted in-store sales of its flavored pods. The flavors — mango, cucumber, fruit and creme — remain available via age-restricted online sales. And though Juul claims it never wanted its devices used by kids, it only changed their policies when FDA crackdown was imminent.
We will have to wait for next year’s numbers to see if these changes deter kids from developing a habit. But for now, the Surgeon General says we have an “epidemic” on our hands.
Over the last half-century, fighting cigarette smoking has been an expensive and lengthy process. According to the Health Evidence Network, the most effective way to discourage cigarette smoking has been to raise the price of cigarettes. Price hikes also prove two to three times more effective in deterring young people, a fact that those eager to regulate e-cigarettes should note.
Placing an excise tax on nicotine pods could help combat underage vaping.
But what is even more effective than government intervention is an earnest effort by parents and teachers to inform kids about the dangers e-cigarettes pose.
A rise in nicotine use among children cannot be solved by a single method. Rather, legislative efforts along with the involvement of adults are essential in combating youth nicotine addiction.