Recent legislation to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to persons younger than 18 years of age, and to prevent distribution of free samples and placement in vending machines where teens may be present, was a major win for the fight for the health and well-being of our adolescents.1
The electronic nicotine delivery system, or ENDS, was developed as an alternative to smoking cigarettes, reducing the intake of harmful fumes that lead to lung cancer. It was a great idea for those wishing to decrease or completely stop smoking. Its sleek design and flavor assortment made it very appealing, not only to adults, but to teenagers as well.
The history of e-cigs goes back to the 1960s when first developed, but because smoking was so socially acceptable the idea did not take hold. It wasn’t until 2003 when they started to become popular. Initially, e-cigs were met with resistance from the Food and Drug Administration, which stated that they were dangerous. But as the need for an alternative to smoking increased and preventable deaths continued to rise, there was more pressure to make them available. In 2013, sales started to skyrocket, but no restrictions for sale or product information was required. This made them readily available to teens and heralded the start of a whole new crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between 2011 and 2014, e-cig use rose from 0.6% to 5.3% among middle schoolers and from 1.5% to 16% among high school students.2
Because the marketing for e-cigs suggests they carry a reduced risk for cancer and are a healthier alternative to cigarettes, the perception is that they are not harmful. But research shows the contrary. Nicotine exposure of any level to the developing brain has been found to have negative effects, particularly in the prefrontal cortex where altered synapses have been identified.3 Symptoms of nicotine dependence at lower doses of nicotine is evident in adolescents. Long-term effects in adolescents are reported in working memory, attention, and predilection to major depressive disorder, panic disorder, academic problems, and addiction to other substances.3
The American Academy of Pediatrics 2015 statement on e-cigarettes stated increasing use by teens “threatens 5 decades of public health gains in successfully deglamorizing, restricting, and decreasing the use of tobacco products” and called for an FDA ban on the products.4 Although the FDA recently did place new restrictions, it will take several years for them to go fully into effect. A recent incident where a toddler ingested the liquid nicotine from an e-cig and died also brought to light other dangers of nicotine.5 These nicotine solutions come in colors and a variety of flavors, which makes them even more desirable to toddlers.Just one confirmed death has been reported from e-cig solution ingestion, but there has been a significant jump in calls to poison control centers associated with the liquids. Nicotine from these solutions also can be absorbed through the skin.
More than 3 million middle and high school students were current users of e-cigarettes in 2015,1 and e-cigs were the most commonly used tobacco product among middle and high school students that year.2 Early introduction of ENDS causes a combination of early dependence and addiction with long-term impairment of cognitive skills, promoting an even more grim future for the health of our teens. Education and awareness is imperative to slow the current trends and prevent an even worse crisis than the one ENDS was created to improve.
4. Pediatrics. 2015 Nov .10.1542/peds.2015-3222.
Dr. Pearce is a pediatrician in Frankfort, Ill. Email her at email@example.com.