The epidemic of e-cigarette use has taken on an immediacy as a result of 1,479 reported cases of serious lung injuries and 33 deaths.
The early warning came from the largely ignored 2016 Surgeon General’s report where he warned of the massive increase in the number of teens using e-cigarettes. The concerns about the toxicity of long-term nicotine use on the teenage brain, increased cardiac risk and that e-cigarette use by teenagers made it three or four times more likely that they would start smoking cigarettes did not catch the public’s attention until the current pulmonary disaster.
We now have a public health crisis that most likely emanates from the electronically heated flavored liquid that becomes aerosolized. The flavored “juice” contains many known toxic chemicals, THC and unknown ingredients.
Surveys of teen users of e-cigarettes say flavors are a principle reason they start using them. One study found that 75% of teen e-cigarette users would quit if flavors were removed. Removing flavors will not only reduce the likelihood of pulmonary toxicity; fewer teens will start using, and fewer will get addicted.
The other reason teens said they use them is they believe they are safer. A recent statement by the FDA says that is false. The FDA chastised JUUL, the largest producer of e-cigarettes, for making such a claim. The FDA has not approved them as a method for quitting cigarettes.
Raising the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 is the second important step. Based on the experience from cigarettes, we will see a decrease in the number of teens who start since 90% of smokers started smoking before they were 19. Given teen behavior, it is likely the pattern will be the same for e-cigarettes. The group most impacted will be those 15 to 17 years old, as high school students will be less likely to be in the same social networks as individuals aged 21.
The problem needs to be approached the same way cigarette smoking was successfully attacked, using education and legislation. The New Mexico Department of Health has been quick to let us know about the single case of the Hantavirus this year, but has been silent in regard to the epidemic that has addicted millions of teenagers and poisoned the lungs of nearly 1,500 people so far. Secretary Kathleen Kunkle should lead her department to provide guidance, education and support for the addicted teens, their parents and teachers to begin to deal with this public health emergency.
The governor and the New Mexico Legislature must act quickly and forcefully to try to contain the e-cigarette catastrophe by passing legislation to remove the toxic flavors from e-cigarettes, outlaw candy-flavored non-nicotine e-cigarettes and to raise the age to purchase tobacco products to 21.