E-cigarette manufacturers have young audiences wrapped around their fingers, and now they have blood on their hands. Six deaths and over five hundred hospitalizations are now linked to vaping-related illnesses, a count that continues to grow daily. The typical symptoms are quite morbid, including coughing, vomiting, chest pain and nausea. So far, doctors have treated one-third of the hospitalized cases with breathing tubes and ventilators. Many of these cases have also resulted in permanent lung damage and will require months of recovery. The median age of the victims is 19.
E-cigarettes are still safer than their combustible alternatives, and e-cigarette industries have stitched this notion into their slogans, mission statements and advertising tactics. A friend of mine once vowed through clouds of vape that she would never touch a cigarette (disclaimer: she eventually did). Juul’s Make the Switch campaign boasts a vision of “improving the lives of the world’s one billion smokers by eliminating cigarettes.”
This conception of healthiness, however, is unsubstantiated and deceptive. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid. They tend to foster substitution, not cessation, of nicotine use. E-cigarettes have only been around since 2007 in the United States, and it is manipulative for manufacturers to market them as better alternatives to cigarettes— there has simply not been enough time, research or evidence to credibly analyze their long-term effects.
I’m hard-pressed to believe that e-cigarettes are harmless. Along with nicotine, e-cigarette aerosols contain diacetyl flavoring (linked to lung disease), benzene (a volatile organic compound) and traces of heavy metals (carcinogenic). The flavoring used in e-cigarette aerosols is FDA-approved for consumption — but not for inhalation. This, along with the illness that has recently been making headlines, makes me alarmed about any claims made about the safety of e-cigarettes. Based on the short-term health effects of e-cigarettes, the long-term ones aren’t promising.
The vaping industry spends a staggering $125 million on advertising and marketing annually. The e-cigarette company that has fallen under the most public scrutiny is Juul, whose sales account for 40 percent of the e-cigarette retail market share. By illegally marketing e-cigarettes as safe, deceptively marketing them to appeal to younger populations and increasing their product’s nicotine concentration, the company has secured a lifelong customer base by capturing a new generation of nicotine addicts. Easily influenced younger populations, when exposed to addictive substances like nicotine, become permanent customers to these industries. Nicotine can prime addictive learning behaviors and damages the formation of neural synapses, especially in users under 25 years old. This is incredibly profitable to companies like Juul, whose pods each pack in as much nicotine as twenty cigarettes. Any moral obligation to keep nicotine products out of the hands of minors does not hold Juul back from marketing its product to young adults and teenagers. Juul has created an airtight business model that secures decades of revenue.
Juul’s website, easily accessible following a click of an “I am over the age of 21” button, preaches that they “certainly don’t want youth using their product.” Unfortunately, young adults are the audience that Juul has had the most success with. Though only 2.3 percent of adults use nicotine use e-cigarettes, 20 percent of high schoolers and five percent of middle schoolers report regular e-cigarette use.
Juul products check all of the boxes to entice young consumers. From 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use increased 78 percent in high school students and 48 percent in middle school students, coinciding with an exponential increase in Juul sales. The design of the e-cigarette, which can be easily pocketed or thrown into a pencil case, enables use around unsuspecting adults. Almost 70 percent of e-cigarette smokers use flavored aerosols, and more than a third of high schoolers list flavor as a reason for their e-cigarette use. Despite attempts to regulate the sale of flavored pods, Juul pods are still available in a variety of tantalizing flavors like mango, mint and “creme” — it’s no surprise that many have reacted like kids in a candy store.
The actions that these e-cigarette companies take to hook young users will have tragic consequences that are beginning to manifest. It’s necessary to conduct high-power research on the true health effects of e-cigarette use, both over the short term and the long term, to clear up the smoke surrounding their alleged benefits. Firmer federal regulations should be imposed on e-cigarette manufacturers to prevent any further marketing to young and non-smoking populations (some progress has recently been made in this direction). It’s important for policymakers to fund education programs for young populations about the effects of e-cigarettes, as children as young as fifth-graders are now considered to be at-risk populations for nicotine addiction. Ideally, they would be with Juul’s blood money. These education initiatives would necessitate significant funding— a worthy investment to begin to dismantle the $2.5 billion e-cigarette industry that ignited the youth vaping epidemic.
Margo Cazin is a junior biology major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.