When we first investigated and reported in April about the rising use of electronic cigarettes by local teens we came away astonished by the set of facts that pointed to a public health crisis that was impacting thousands of unwitting local students. Since that time, the horrors of “vaping” have increased in volume and intensity. Earlier this month, Dr. Celeste Philip, Sonoma County’s public health officer, issued an alert and urged local doctors to watch for lung illnesses that could be linked to vaping nicotine and cannabis. This week, the first death in California attributed to vaping was reported among 57 similar cases of lung illnesses linked to vaping. More than 500 mysterious lung illness cases and five deaths have been reported nationwide.

Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

This week the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) said Juul Labs, the largest e-cigarette company, illegally marketed its vaping products as being safer than traditional cigarettes. The FDA said it also was investigating whether the company was targeting teens with seductive flavorings and social media marketing.

Our reporting in April found that 20% of local high schoolers had tried vaping or continued on a regular basis. We interviewed local educators who said student vaping was their top concern related to campus life and student behavior. Now comes the extra evidence that vaping is not the cool social fad it seems to be; it is a potential killer.

What is vaping? Vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling the aerosol, often referred to as vapor, which is produced by an e-cigarette, a Juul pod, pen or similar device. E-cigarettes do not produce tobacco smoke, but rather an aerosol, often mistaken for water vapor. Instead of water, vaping teens are actually inhaling particles containing toxic chemicals and oils added to trigger the aerosol ignition. It is these additives that are now being linked to the recent lung illnesses and deaths. (Cannabis vaping also requires the dangerous oil additives.)

While new mysteries about e-cigarettes are being explored, there is plenty of science around tobacco use that is unquestionable. Nicotine is one the most addictive substances to be found anywhere. Public health officials are aghast at how many teens have become addicted to nicotine through the gateway of vaping. Nicotine is a chemical that is used in poison compounds and similar products. Science also has found that the effects of nicotine are especially acute in younger and developing brains. Permanent brain damage can occur from repeated nicotine exposure.

Currently the sale of tobacco products in California is licensed and illegal to minors under the age of 21. San Francisco in June outlawed all sales of e-cigarettes at all ages and 12 states in the U.S. have special restrictions on e-cigarettes. Many jurisdictions are banning all vaping products that have flavors, which have proved extra attractive to youth.

Sonoma County should immediately ban the sale of all e-cigarette products. The harmful effects of vaping is unknown but increasingly worrisome. The cool tech look of the devices and the absence of odor or smoke makes e-cigarettes appear safer and cleaner than traditional tobacco smoking. Juul Labs and other e-cigarette manufacturers have been caught in deceptive and sinister marketing and public disinformation practices. Not only should their products be banned but someone should be put in jail.

Parents and others should become better educated about vaping and how to detect it and how to help ban it. There is a Coalition for a Smoke-free Sonoma County, led by the county’s Public Health Services with 16 local agency partners. Tobacco use causes cancer and death. Long-term use is associated with heart and lung disease and poor quality of overall health. Why would we continue to allow this exposure in our communities, schools and markets for our young people?

Do we need more scientific evidence than that before we attack this menacing public health crisis? We hope not.

— Rollie Atkinson

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