With e-cigarette use skyrocketing among teens in New Jersey — and nationwide — debate continues over the role these devices play in public health. Some insist they can help patients kick their potentially deadly smoking habit, while others fear they have created a new generation of tobacco addicts.
To help resolve some of the questions involved, leaders at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School produced a short video that addresses some of the pros and cons of using electronic cigarettes, especially for young people. The presentation — designed for anyone interested in these health issues, but geared toward a more adult audience — was shared with reporters, posted on the school’s website, and distributed through social media.
In the video Dr. Michael B. Steinberg, an RWJMS professor and director of the school’s Tobacco Dependence Program, explains that e-cigarettes — or vapes — are battery-powered devices that heat a nicotine-infused oil to create vapor that users inhale. (Some people also use them for cannabis-infused oils.) He notes that a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences concluded, based on existing research, that e-cigarettes are “considerably less” dangerous than traditional cigarettes.
“It is critical to understand that less harmful does not equate to harmless,” Steinberg explained — especially when the user is a young person. “The human brain continues to develop well into your 20s and that developing brain is particularly susceptible to nicotine,” he explained.
The issues addressed in the film echo those raised during a Twitter battle involving former state Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal, who took to social media to declare that vaping should not be considered a “safe” alternative to traditional cigarettes. He encountered fierce pushback from e-cigarette supporters, including Greg Conley, head of the American Vaping Association, who insisted the devices play a legitimate role in helping adults cut back or quit smoking.
E-cigarettes heat up in NJ
Smoking rates in the Garden State have declined in recent years — less than 14 percent of adults and around 12 percent of high school students now light up — and remain below the national average. But the use of e-cigarettes has grown significantly in the state; the DOH found more than one in five New Jersey high school students had tried or used e-cigarettes regularly during the 2016-2017 school year.
Steinberg said the nationwide rate of teen vaping is similar to New Jersey’s. A 2018 study by the federal Food and Drug Administration showed e-cigarette use among high school students jumped 77 percent across the country that year alone. Reports suggest it rose by 50 percent among middle-school students.
New Jersey officials have taken a number of steps to combat the e-cigarette epidemic among young people and last fall committed some $7 million in tobacco-tax revenue to address vaping through a variety of regional and community programs. The state has also expanded the Medicaid program to provide more smoking-cessation coverage. And lawmakers have introduced a variety of proposals to make it harder for youngsters to obtain the devices; they’re not for sale in stores to anyone under 21 but are readily available online.
Tobacco use still kills nearly a half million Americans annually, Steinberg said, and statistics show that includes roughly 12,000 Garden State residents. In some ways e-cigarettes are less harmful than conventional smokes because they do not create tar and other combustible products that are proven carcinogens, he noted.
But Steinberg is concerned about the impact of inhaling the compounds in the flavored oils, which are enhanced with chemicals designed for food products, and not tested in vapes. Plus, e-cigarettes — which come in fun colors and shapes — are creating millions of newly nicotine-dependent youngsters nationwide.
“It’s not hard to understand how these products could appeal to young people, as they come in so many flavors like mango, vanilla, and bubble gum,” the professor noted in the video.
However, e-cigarettes may provide some benefits to adult smokers looking for a less deadly option, Steinberg said. Several studies conducted in the United Kingdom have come to similar conclusions, but not without identifying downsides. Elanhal has argued that nicotine-replacement patches and gums are more effective. These products have FDA approval, while vape makers have not sought the government’s green light to market their products as smoking-cessation aides.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have enough information to recommend (e-cigarettes) fully, as the jury is still out. But the hope is these products could really help people quit (conventional cigarettes) in the future,” Steinberg said in the video.
Steinberg also urges parents to learn more about the devices and talk to their teens about the risks of vaping, and try to keep the lines of communication open. “Ask for their thoughts and answer their questions,” he said.