A Fiery Debate on Dangers, Benefits of Vaping: NJ Spotlight Roundtable

Health care providers and lawmakers call for state to pass legislation protecting young people from dangers of e-cigarettes
Credit: Krystina Graba/Pixabay
There was agreement about the need for more public education.

Text: Lilo H. Stainton

Video report: Joanna Gagis, NJTV News

Some sparks flew during NJ Spotlight’s vaping roundtable Friday as participants weighed the benefits e-cigarettes may offer some adult smokers against the growing evidence that the vape industry has targeted children, resulting in a new generation of nicotine addicts. But there was agreement about the need for more public education about these products and consistent enforcement to ensure these devices aren’t sold to those under age 21.

Health care providers, a cancer advocate and several lawmakers said New Jersey must take additional action to stop young people’s access to these devices, which have become common in high schools and are gaining popularity among middle-school students. However, a representative of the e-cigarette industry insisted these moves will only harm adults seeking to quit traditional cigarette use and won’t actually slow the trend among young people.

And the safety of these products became a flashpoint several times, as roundtable participants challenged assertions by Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, that e-cigarettes are appropriate smoking cessation products. Unlike nicotine gums, skin patches and other methods, vapes have not approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for this use.

Benefits versus risks 

“But they’re not safe. You can’t say that,” Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) fired back when Conley said other cigarette smokers should be able to access these products, which helped him quit traditional smoking years ago; Conaway is also a doctor and chair of the Assembly health committee. “Not one of these devices has gone through any kind of FDA approval to prove that they are in fact a smoking cessation device,” the assemblyman said.

E-cigarettes heat an oil or other liquid infused with nicotine or THC, a chemical in marijuana, into a vapor that is inhaled. While they don’t create the cancer-causing tar found in traditional smokes, they do have elevated levels of nicotine that can quickly lead to addiction. These products are now used by one in 10 middle-school students and a quarter of high-schoolers.

Where kids go to vape

Abigail Thompson, youth prevention manager with the RWJBarnabas Health Institute for Prevention and Recovery, said some parents gift their children with vapes, unaware that they contain nicotine. One child found an e-cigarette packed in their lunchbox as a treat, she said.

“They can’t go to the restroom within their school because those are called Juul rooms, and that’s where kids go to vape,” Thompson said, referring to one of the most popular vape brands among kids.

Scientists are now struggling to better understand how e-cigarette products impact health, but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified a vape-related lung disease that has now killed 48 people — including a young woman in New Jersey — and sickened nearly 3,000 more. Doctors said lung tissue samples from some of these cases revealed what appeared to be serious chemical burns.

“Our institution has noticed a spike in acute respiratory illnesses among young adults, age 18 to about 35,” said Dr. Eric Constanzo, a pulmonary expert with Hackensack Meridian Health. Constanzo regularly speaks to students about the dangers of these devices as part of a new HMH campaign to reduce vape use among youngsters.

The first part of Friday’s roundtable focused on the nature of vaping, particularly among children, and the impact on health; the second session dug into policy proposals to better protect these kids, including the handful of bills proposed by Conaway and Sen. Joseph Vitale Jr. (D-Middlesex), the longtime Senate health committee chairman who has long championed anti-smoking measures of all kinds.

Proposals for various bans

Legislation now making its way through both houses would ban all flavored vaping products, which experts said are expressly designed to hook kids; another bill would ban menthol cigarettes, which were exempted from a prohibition on flavored tobacco products approved nearly a decade ago. Other measures would create a database to track all products and purchases and reform how vape shops are regulated.

Vitale — who runs a small family business himself — acknowledged these changes could be challenging for some smaller shops. But the legislation is designed to protect those who have built dedicated e-cigarette businesses. “You know, they took some of their life savings and money to open up the store. You know, it’s a big effort to do that,” he said. “And they mean well.”

While some small business groups have opposed these bills — and adult vapers insist restricting sales will do more public health harm than good — others want the state to take an even stronger response to what they consider an e-cigarette epidemic.

“We’re not just advocating for a flavor ban on e-cigarettes. We want all flavor tobacco products to be banned,” said Samantha DeAlmeida, the government relations director with New Jersey’s American Cancer Society, Cancer Action Network. “Kids are going to transition to a different product. They’re going to move to cigarillos or little cigars, (or) menthol cigarettes that plague minority communities,” she said.

The event included a keynote address by former state health commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark. The roundtable was sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health and RWJBarnabas Health.

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