Vaping Is Cool, Until…

My nephew called at 9 pm- he had had a fever the night before, woke up drenched with sweat, couldn’t stop coughing, and then had slept all day.  He also felt crackling in his lungs when he breathed.  He couldn’t finish a sentence without coughing, and sounded weak.  I was out of town and couldn’t see him myself, so I said “Get to the Lafayette General Emergency Department.”  Later my colleague Nick texted me- it was pneumonia alright, and my nephew was being admitted for IV antibiotics and observation. One thing particularly worried Nick- my nephew had been vaping.

Vaping?  As far as I knew, the dangers of vaping were largely theoretical.  Sure vaping liquid contains nicotine, but lung injury?  Well, this August I learned that my nephew was on the front line of an emerging epidemic in teens and adults who vape. The victims develop coughing, shortness of breath, fever, vomiting, and chest pain.  One of the sneaky things about the illness is that though the patients look awful, their chest x-rays look normal. It takes a CT scan to show the extent of the lung damage.

Also sneaky- the perception that vaping is safe, that it’s just flavored water vapor. First, most vaping fluids contain nicotine, one of the most addictive substances known to science. Kids get hooked, and often transition to the next nicotine fix- cigarettes.  Data is emerging that vaping is a “gateway” to real smoking. Nicotine also harms brain development, which is still ongoing until age 25.  Users can have trouble with memory and learning.  Finally, vaping transmits lung irritants and cancer-causing chemicals.

My nephew’s episode was a wake-up call for me to now start talking to teens about vaping, and quitting, just like with cigarettes.  It’s also a wake-up call for parents to talk to their kids about its dangers.  And they should have his talk before the kids are eye-rolling teenagers, inured to their parents’ advice.  Children need to hear these messages while they’re still young and impressionable.  It’s certainly cheaper and easier than trying to quit later with drugs and therapy, and a lot better for them.

I love Penn and Teller, the magicians.  Their tricks are great, but their crass sense of humor really kills me. I once saw them on Broadway, where they did an illusion with cigarette smoke blowing out of a painting and wrapping itself in all kinds of artistic shapes.  As Penn lit up to start the trick, he turned to the audience and said, “Now kids, cigarettes are bad for you, so don’t start smoking….unless you want to look really cool.”

The joke is, of course, that all kids DO want to look cool, but smoking isn’t the way.  Unfortunately, society continues to view smoking as attractive. Hollywood film noirs with moody characters must have them light up a cigarette, their faces wreathed in smoke.  Even worse, in 1988, the tobacco manufacturer RJ Reynolds began the Joe Camel campaign, a cartoon camel that “coincidentally” appealed to children and teens.  Cigarette sales to minors shot up $470 million per year.  Internal documents revealed RJR’s VP of marketing saying the “young adult market…represents tomorrow’s cigarette business.”  Hook them on highly addictive nicotine, and they’re customers for life.

This insidious thinking now fuels the vaping trade.  As we discussed above, vaping is often perceived as harmless- it’s only flavored water vapor, right?  Wrong. Besides kid-friendly flavoring, vaping liquid contains nicotine.  It also contains other cancer-causing chemicals and lung irritants, leading to the current epidemic of Emergency Department visits of teens and young adults gasping for breath.

The latest sneak attack is the JUUL (pronounced “jewel”) E-cigarette.  Their website claims their “mission” is to “improve the lives of the world’s one billion smokers by eliminating cigarettes.”  In reality, one JUUL pod has as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes.  Also, its nicotine comes in a form that’s less harsh in the throat than other e-cigarettes, removing a last possible deterrent to vaping.  Add yummy flavors like mango and cool mint, and they’ve got a whole new generation hooked, laughing all the way to the bank.

Warn your kids not to be tools of this industry, using the guise of cool, caring, and safe to sell them an early death. Warn them before they’re teens, when they’re still young and impressionable.  Before the new Joe Camel tells them differently.