My whole life, I have watched my grandparents and father wrestle with cigarette addiction. When they took their first drags, smoking was the social norm. They never imagined a lifetime of incessant puffing, a slew of health issues, and a worried family. After watching their struggles, it’s comforting that I rarely see people smoking cigarettes at my college, the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Regular smokers often pick up the habit in their mid-teens, and in 2018 only about 8 percent of high school students had smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days. But that doesn’t mean my generation has kicked the habit.
In fact, cigarette usage is spiking among those under 25. Only we aren’t smoking, we’re vaping e-cigarettes. In a 2018 survey, more than 1 in 5 high school students said they had used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days.
I’ve seen fellow students vaping in their dorm rooms, inside nightclubs, and I’ve even heard about people sneaking vape hits during large lecture classes. Nobody would light up a conventional cigarette in such places. But e-cigarettes are different. One night on the bus into downtown Amherst, I noticed a tiny cloud of vapor rising in my section, and realized the young man seated across from me was using an e-cigarette. There wasn’t much of a smell to it, nothing like a conventional cigarette — some e-cigarettes even smell like cucumber, or mango. And the cloud of vapor dissipated so quickly that few people would have seen it.
“Never try one of these,” my grandfather always says with regret as he reaches for a cigarette. His orange pack of Pall Malls looks nothing like a Juul, a brand of e-cigarette popular enough that it is also a verb: Juuling. Juuls are about the size of a long flash drive, and are USB compatible, for recharging the battery-powered internal heater. Juuling requires no lighter or match — just slip it between your lips and take a drag. Doing so turns on the heater, which vaporizes a liquid with nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals contained in a pod inside the device. There’s no ash, no cigarette butts, your clothes don’t smell like burnt tobacco, and it’s easy to swap out the pods.
E-cigarettes appeal to young people because they’re sleek, they’re inconspicuous, they come in fun flavors, and they give vapers a head rush. They’re also seen as less harmful than traditional cigarettes, says Sharon Levy, director of the Adolescent Substance Use and Addiction Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. Almost two-thirds of Juul users 15 to 24 don’t know that pods contain nicotine, according to a 2018 study by the Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco nonprofit.
It’s not wrong to say that e-cigarettes aren’t as bad for us as their tobacco counterparts. They don’t release tar, the substance that is the main cancer and cardiac risk in cigarettes. But that doesn’t make e-cigarettes safe. Juul Labs says one of its pods has about the same amount of nicotine as a regular pack of cigarettes. Nicotine is highly addictive — Levy say she has treated kids who cannot make it through a class without vaping. Schools across the country are installing vape detectors in bathrooms to keep kids from sneaking a smoke break. Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, says he is prescribing nicotine gum and patches to help teens addicted to e-cigarettes stay in school or on sports teams while recovering.
I bet most kids also don’t know that vaping can trigger asthma attacks, and even cause lung disease. Nicotine use can cause behavioral changes, and also depression and anxiety in young adults. But the big concern is what we don’t know about the long-term effects of e-cigarettes. Many of them contain carcinogens, and when users take a puff from an e-cigarette, they draw ultrafine particles deep into their lungs. That, says Winickoff, “will likely lead to cancer down the road.” Vapers also risk inhaling toxic metals such as nickel, tin, and lead from the heating coils in some e-cigarettes, all of which have been associated with some cancers, and lung and cardiovascular diseases. And nicotine poisoning is also becoming an issue. Years from now, my generation’s vape addiction could become the cautionary tale for our children and grandchildren.
To help curb usage by teens, President Trump recently proposed adding a fee to e-cigarettes. Governor Charlie Baker proposed a state tax on e-cigarettes for the same reason. There are multiple investigations into whether e-cigarette makers deceive minors with their ads, including one by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. Obviously, we need to strengthen education programs.
It’s good that Juul Labs put an age verification system for shoppers on its website, stopped selling flavored pods in stores, and stopped posting on its Facebook and Instagram pages (it recently added Healey’s predecessor, Martha Coakley, to its government affairs team). But these steps are too late for teens who are already hooked, and won’t guarantee protection for those who aren’t.
Maybe e-cigarettes won’t kill hundreds of thousands of Americans a year, the way tobacco cigarettes do. But when teens vape, almost 31 percent of them pick up smoking within six months (only 8 percent who don’t vape take up smoking). Ironic, since e-cigarettes are supposed to help smokers stop. My dad, after a decade of New Year’s resolutions, nicotine patches, and even a failed attempt at using e-cigarettes to quit, is finally nearing a smoke-free year. We must act quickly to keep my generation, and my younger brother’s, from spending our lives battling addiction.