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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Lighting Up

By Malia Jacobson

For decades, teachers have dealt with teen smoking: Kids skipping class to light up; smoke seeping out of bathroom stalls; tobacco scents trailing into class. But when electronic cigarettes hit the scene a few years ago, educators noticed a change. Instead of the classic smoker aroma, the smell was candy-sweet. Instead of lighters, students were carrying electronic cigarettes.

“Suddenly, these things were everywhere,” says educator Megan Temple. “In sporting events, in bathrooms, even showing up in class. It’s a big problem.”

E-cigarettes are slender cylindrical devices with an electronic heating element that vaporizes nicotine-infused liquid, also called “vape juice” or “e-juice.” This liquid comes in hundreds of sweet, teen-friendly flavors, from banana cream pie to butter rum.

The popularity of e-cigarettes is exploding. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a quarter-million middle and high school students who had never smoked a traditional cigarette tried e-cigarettes in 2013, a three-fold increase from 2011. Among high school students, e-cigarette use doubled from 4.7 percent to 10 percent between 2011 and 2012.

With no combustion, smoke, and the tell-tale smoke smell, “vape pens” are more discreet than traditional cigarettes. This means they pose a different kind of health risk to teens, says Harold Farber, MD, pediatric pulmonologist at Texas Children’s Hospital. Because e-cigarettes allow teens to use nicotine in places smoking isn’t allowed—at school, work, or in or around restaurants where cigarettes are banned—they increase teens’ access to nicotine, Farber says. The vape liquid smell isn’t a smoky smell, so parents may not detect it, either.

Discreet or not, e-cigarettes still pose all the health risks associated with nicotine, including reduced lung function, narrowed blood vessels, heart strain, and risk for serious, long-term addiction.

In addition, nicotine liquid is hazardous if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. The CDC reports that poison center calls involving e-cigarettes jumped from one call per month in 2010 to 215 calls per month in February 2014.

Legal Limbo

Appealing and addictive, e-cigarettes are also more accessible to teens than conventional cigarettes. Though some states ban e-cigarette sales to minors, vape pens and juice are available in a few clicks online.

California law prevents minors from buying vaping devices containing nicotine. However, the California State Assembly recently passed a bill that would ban teens under 18 years old from buying vaping and e-cig devices, period.

Currently, no federal ban prevents youth from purchasing e-cigarettes or the nicotine liquid. Federal regulation of e-cigarettes is currently pending; in spring 2014, the FDA released a proposed rule that would expand the ban on tobacco sales to minors to include electronic cigarettes and liquid.

A final rule is expected by the end of year.

Buzz Beaters

The best way to keep teens away from e-cigarettes: Talk to them in terms they care about, Farber says.

“Teenagers don’t care as much about losing years of their life, because that’s so far in the future,” Farber says. “Instead, talk to them about how nicotine reduces athletic performance. Tell them it can age them and affect how their skin looks.”

Avoiding exposure to tobacco marketing—retail displays, print ads, and television promotion—is important, too. American youth see 559 tobacco ads per year, and those exposed to more sources of tobacco advertising are the most likely to smoke.

Megan Temple hopes the e-cigarette novelty wears off. The school she works at drafted e-cigarette policies that seem to be helping. That’s a positive step, Temple says. “Any e-cigarette use at school or in teens is a problem.”

Malia Jacobson’s latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.