One of the most attractive features of electronic nicotine delivery systems has to be the perception that they are less harmful to one’s health than the most traditional nicotine delivery devices of all — cigarettes. But less harmful is not the same as not harmful, and there is a growing body of evidence that the liquid nicotine, flavorings, fine particles, and chemicals contained in e-cigarettes and vaping devices are indeed dangerous to inhale, especially for young people.
In general, humans are terrible at correctly assessing and mitigating risk in their lives, which, along with drug addiction — in the case of tobacco, addiction to nicotine — helps explain why so many people smoke beginning a very young ages. Few non-smoking 30-year-olds look at smokers and say, “Yeah, that looks like a good idea.” But children, teenagers, and young adults might still come away thinking that they won’t be hurt from what is, let’s face it, a horrible drug habit with lifelong health impacts that include a shortened lifespan. And when it comes to their parents, a new study suggests that they, too, underestimate the damage that can be caused from vaping, and the damage that occurs when their own children witness it. Amy Norton says that parents may shield their children from tobacco smoke at home, but liquid nicotine in a vaping device is something else:
The study surveyed over 700 parents who smoked cigarettes, used e-cigarettes or both. The researchers found that most — regardless of their product of choice — had a “strict” smoke-free policy at home.
Yet few e-cigarette users had banned vaping from their homes: Only around one-quarter had done so — versus 73 percent of parents who only smoked cigarettes.
Altogether, the findings suggest that parents who vape are unaware of the risks to their kids, said senior researcher Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, of Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston.
Some parents don’t seem to be getting the message that air pollution from any source — indoor or outdoor — is dangerous to themselves and their children. Fine particulate matter and aerosolized chemicals don’t care whether they are emitted from a cigarette, a vape pen, or an industrial smokestack; they produce the same harmful effects on the human body:
According to Linda Richter, director of policy research and analysis for the New York-based nonprofit Center on Addiction, “The aerosol produced by vaping is by no means ‘harmless’ water vapor.”
Being around the aerosol can irritate the eyes, throat and lungs — and may worsen asthma or any other respiratory problems a child has, said Richter, who was not involved in the study.
Then there’s the nicotine. “Secondhand exposure can result in measurable levels of nicotine in the bloodstream, at levels similar to secondhand exposure to cigarette smoke,” Richter said.
It’s clear that online advertising, colorful packaging, high-tech designs, and the variety of sweet-tasting flavors enhance young people’s attraction to electronic nicotine delivery devices. But the most important influence of all may be what all of us should already know: Whatever parents say or do, their kids are more likely to mimic them:
There’s a vaping “epidemic” among teenagers right now, Winickoff said, and if kids see their parents doing it, that will reinforce the notion that it’s harmless.
Richter agreed. “One of the main predictors of young people’s use of e-cigarettes — or any addictive substance — is the example set by their parents and other important people in their lives,” she said.
Kids have a right to clean air, inside the home and outside, too. We should be increasing our awareness and concern about what enters their lungs, whether it is an occasional hit from a cigarette or vaping device, or a breathful of air pollution 12-24 times a minute (depending on age, activity, and health status), every minute of every hour of every day.