Remember the “good old days” when all cigarettes looked alike? We have seen an astonishing explosion of electronic smoking devices in many shapes and sizes.
In fact, the proportion of U.S. high-school students using e-cigarettes went up 800 percent from 2011 to 2014. While there was a slight reduction in smoking, or vaping, e-cigarettes in 2016, today more youth in Kentucky and the U.S. smoke e-cigarettes than smoke traditional cigarettes.
In January, Juul, a “pod mod,” became the top-selling e-cigarette in the U.S. It is alarming that children are not allowed to chew gum in class, but they are using e-cigarettes in school.
The U.S. Surgeon General says “there is no reason children should use e-cigarettes.” E-cigarette aerosol (not harmless water vapor as the ads lead us to believe) contains harmful nicotine, tiny particles, sweet appealing flavorings and toxic chemicals.
In fact, pod mods contain two to10 times higher nicotine levels than other e-cigarettes. One pod is equivalent to the nicotine content in 20 conventional cigarettes. Nicotine harms brain development in children and young adults, and it is highly addictive.
Based on the latest public-health science, we recommend:
1) Schools prohibit the use of all tobacco products including e-cigarettes on school grounds and at school events.
2) Local elected officials enact 100-percent smoke-free workplace laws that also prohibit e-cigarettes.
3) State officials tax e-cigarette devices and e-liquid at the same rate as conventional tobacco products.
One reason for the rise in “juuling” among youth may be pod mods’ unique design that rids the noxious taste and sensation of the initial smoking experience. Experts have grave concerns that many youth who smoke e-cigarettes may go on to use conventional cigarettes, and that these devices are being used to inhale various other drugs.
Pod mod e-cigarettes are lightweight devices that look like a computer USB drive. They are easily hidden. Some schools prohibit all USB drives in an attempt to discourage e-cigarette use. But schools have an uphill battle as those who make and market e-cigarettes aggressively target children.
In 2016, four out of five middle- and high-school students saw at least one ad for e-cigarettes on the internet, in retail stores or at recreational events.
The tobacco and e-cigarette companies target our children in many ways. First, they place ads on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Studies show that Juul-related tweets are directly correlated with retail sales. Second, they sponsor music festivals and other events that feature pod-mod charging stations, interactive photo booths and free samples, even though this type of tobacco promotion is banned for traditional cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.
Third, tobacco and e-cigarette companies make and promote kid-friendly flavors like cotton candy and gummi bear. Most users say the flavors are the main reason they start to use. Lastly, the tobacco companies offer scholarships of $250 to $5,000 to students who write essays on the potential benefits of e-cigarettes.
The fact is: The ‘good old days’ were never that good. Target marketing by the tobacco companies has been around for decades as they spend billions promoting and glamorizing tobacco use. The tobacco companies have fought meaningful tobacco control policies for years and that has not changed. Same tobacco-company tactics; new tobacco products.
Sadly, nearly 10,000 Kentuckians die each year from smoking and this has changed very little over the years.
Ellen J. Hahn is professor and director of BREATHE and the Kentucky Center for Smoke-free Policy in the University of Kentucky College of Nursing. Melinda J. Ickes is associate professor and director of Go Tobacco-free in UK’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion.