Less than 4% of high school seniors report daily tobacco smoking in 2018, hardly a fifth of where that figure was 20 years ago. It's a downward trend representing one of the most successful public health campaigns ever waged. But it comes alongside another trend, one in which many experts see tobacco's disturbing reflection.
"It's common knowledge that traditional cigarettes are unsafe," says pediatric pulmonologist Grace Houser, MD. "Unfortunately, there's not the same perception about e-cigarettes."
She says teen vaping is on the rise — skyrocketing, even, at a rate far steeper than tobacco's decline. According to new information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes rose from 3.6 million in 2018 to 5.3 million in 2019 — a difference of about 1.7 million youth. Colorado has one of the highest youth vaping rates in the U.S.
Severe vaping health risks
Many parents want to know, "Is vaping safe?" You don't have to look far for the answer. The CDC reports growing numbers of lung injuries in people of all ages due to vaping. Some of these cases are fatal.
As of October 10, 2019, the CDC had reported 1,299 cases of lung injury linked to vaping since the summer. Of those, 26 had died. But as of December 4, 2019, the CDC reports that 2,291 cases of lung injury have been linked to vaping since the summer. And of those, 48 have died — the youngest was 17 years old.
The CDC says it’s leading a complex investigation into vaping health risks that spans nearly all states and a wide variety of products, including the most popular e-cigarette, JUUL.
Cases of lung injury as of December 4, 2019
Of cases are under 18 years old
Fatal cases as of December 4, 2019
The cause of lung injury in these patients is linked to the chemicals that they are inhaling when they vape.
What's in e-cigarettes?
Researchers at University of Colorado plan to launch an innovative study in early 2020 to better understand what chemicals are in e-cigarettes. It's innovative because they'll be using a robot to simulate human vaping, and they’ll actually be analyzing the vapor or gas that the robot exhales after it vapes — something that hasn't been studied. Carl White, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children's Hospital Colorado, is leading this study and he explains why this research is important.
"There's a chemical transformation happening when you vape," says Dr. White. “We know that the materials that start out in the device aren’t necessarily analyzed as being harmful. But once you cook those — the process that happens when you vape the materials — what you get is a mix of potentially toxic chemicals including aldehydes like formaldehyde, which is very toxic to the lungs and your body."
Dr. White estimates that there are as many as 50 new chemicals that vapes produce. He says previous studies have identified some, but not all. Many of those yet to be identified are likely toxic, and Dr. White and his team hope to pinpoint as many as they can.
Action on teen vaping
Although research is still ongoing on the long-term effects of vaping, one thing is clear: It is not safe. Not for teens, not for anyone. In addition to Dr. White's upcoming research, Children's Colorado's Government Affairs team continues to pursue legislative action.
The team successfully advocated for an update to the Colorado Clean Indoor Act during the 2019 legislative session. Thanks to support from our community, using e-cigarettes in public indoor spaces in Colorado is now prohibited. But our work isn't done.
This year, Children's Colorado will pursue a multidimensional approach to battle tobacco and nicotine addiction among youth by influencing policy change that can curb the accelerating rates of teen use. Some potential approaches the legislature could take include raising the age of sales for tobacco products, advancing a flavor ban, raising the state's tobacco tax and closing the tax loophole on liquid nicotine.
Learn more about our work in child health advocacy.