It was only after coming to Boston as an exchange student in February that I came to know about the pervasiveness of vaping. At my first party, I saw some fellow students smoking out of things that looked like pens and USB flash drives that people called “jewels.” Never once having smoked or set foot in an enclosed smoking area, I was stunned when my friends later informed me that they were e-cigarettes, or vaping products.
Vaping is referred to the use of battery-powered e-cigarettes whose “e-juice,” a liquid solution containing nicotine and other additives, produces an inhalable aerosol or “vapor” when heated. I discovered that the “jewel” I had been hearing about from all corners of the room was actually spelled “Juul.” Juul is a vaping product widely popular among youth and young adults, constituting approximately 75% of the US e-cigarette market share as of early October 2019. Bloomberg reported that Juul Labs Inc.’s sales skyrocketed from $200 million in 2017 to $1.3 billion in 2018, due to its marketing techniques: its sleek design, food-like packaging, and appealing flavors like mango or cool mint.
Most notably, vaping in general gained widespread popularity because it was initially advertised as a safer alternative to regular cigarettes and promised to help addicts quit smoking. This friendly marketing approach raised many concerns, since it drew more people to smoke e-cigarettes, including underage adolescents whose developing brains could be more severely damaged by nicotine. It was also the lack of research regarding the safety of the liquid-based fillings in vaping products that generated worries that their promoted effects were dubious at best.
Such concerns turned out to be valid amidst a recent surge of vaping-related illnesses and deaths. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1,299 lung injury cases have been reported and 26 deaths have been confirmed in 21 states as of October 8, 2019. Hospital admissions of such illnesses increased drastically since late June of this year. Most of its reported cases involve vapes containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive chemical in cannabis smoked as an alternative to nicotine. Many vaping products linked to these mysterious pulmonary illnesses were also counterfeit products purchased from informal sources. However, doctors are still not certain of the exact causes of the reported illnesses and cannot conclude whether even nicotine-only vapes that are legally purchased are safe to smoke. In fact, 58% of the patients reported using nicotine-containing products and 13% reported exclusive use of nicotine-based products. As the lack of research and information on the matter makes it difficult to distinguish the dangers of nicotine and THC-based vapes, the CDC cautions the use of all vaping products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, urges people to avoid the use of THC-containing products specifically.
80% of the patients were also found to be under 35 years old – this demographic aligns with the FDA’s comment on the public health issue as the “epidemic of youth e-cigarette use.” As a response to mitigate vaping-related illnesses and deaths, several states have implemented bans on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and vaping products. Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts declared a public health emergency and instituted a four-month ban on the sale of vaping products. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state’s Department of Health have also enforced a state-wide ban, which is now being met with lawsuits from vape store owners. Higher education institutions such as Texas A&M University have joined the anti-vaping campaign by enacting a ban on vaping on all campuses. Wellesley College, the school I am currently on exchange in, has also recommended against the use of vapes and e-cigarettes. The Office of Student Wellness recently sent out campus-wide emails with additional links to on and off-campus resources to offer assistance in quitting.
The current panic-driven regulations on e-cigarettes in the US have generated various responses to this “epidemic” among different countries. The Indian government, fearing youth vaping health risks, banned e-cigarettes altogether in mid-September, while China halted Juul’s sales around this time. European countries such as Austria and Germany have subjected e-cigarettes under strict controls, viewing them as tobacco products. On the other hand, the UK has openly embraced e-cigarettes, which the Public Health England claimed are 95% less dangerous than regular smoking. South Korea is another country that classifies e-cigarettes as tobacco products. While the South Korean health ministry has advised the public to refrain from using liquid e-cigarettes due to emerging public concerns in the US, it has not enforced stricter controls. This relatively lax approach is grounded in the belief that sudden adverse health risks will not occur in Korea since THC additives including Vitamin E acetate are illegal substances and liquid cartridges in Korea contain reduced nicotine concentration levels of less than one percent, or 10 mg/ml, under existing regulations.
Although the exact impacts of vaping is yet to be discovered, federal and state authorities in the US as well as other countries strongly believe there are health risks involved. More research needs to be conducted in a timely manner that will allow individuals to make more informed decisions regarding their health and safety. Until more is known, however, perhaps one should think twice before vaping at a party.