America repeating past mistakes with e-cigs

Published 9:06 am Thursday, October 3, 2019


Guest columnist

Say it isn’t so. Surely, America learned from the continuing tragedy of the opioid crisis, spurred on by the intentional marketing and mass distribution of deadly painkillers.

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Surely, we looked at the findings that came out of the lawsuits against tobacco companies, and learned a lesson about the promise of huge profits overriding health effects. 

But, sadly, the current epidemic of the use of e-cigs, and the resulting illnesses occurring across the country, indicate that our learning has been pretty limited.

The use of e-cigs, referred to as “vaping,” has skyrocketed across the country in a very short amount of time. In fact, it has hit so fast that healthcare providers, parents of vaping teens and school teachers and staff were not prepared for the wave of use.

Now, there are daily news reports of youth and adults developing serious lung illnesses from vaping. At this time, the Centers for Disease Control report that no single vaping product or substance has been associated with all of the substantiated illnesses. Black market THC has been attributed to some, but so has nicotine. Nicotine — a substance we do know a lot about.

Recently, Kentucky’s new Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Angela Dearinger, was in Hazard talking about the use of e-cigs. She expressed much concern about the particular effects of vaping on our youth, and the marketing and packaging that have appealed to our teens and pre-teens.

In the most recent Kentucky Incentives for Prevention (KIP) survey of Kentucky youth completed in 2018, 26.7% of high school seniors self-reported that they had used e-cigs in the past 30 days; and 4.2% of our sixth graders reported they had used in the past 30 days. 

Dr. Dearinger called for comprehensive smoke-free policies, media campaigns that present the real facts about smoking and e-cig use, increased availability of smoking cessation programs, and an increase in tobacco prices. She also supports Kentucky’s new law, which requires Kentucky schools to be tobacco-free by next July 1, unless the school district specifically votes against it. 

Now that the negative effects are in the headlines, we are seeing efforts to reign in the e-cig industry. President Trump has directed the FDA to ban flavors of e-cigs except for the tobacco flavor, and recommends that e-cigs be kept out of the hands of children. 

And, as was true with cigarettes and painkillers, the lawsuits have begun. A 25-year-old Lexington man has now brought suit against Pax Labs and Juul, saying that he began using Juul e-cigs to reduce his nicotine intake, but the result was the opposite. He reported that he actually became more addicted to nicotine through the use of e-cigs. 

Even as the e-cig health concerns and legal battles play out on the national scene, we are seeing the pros and cons of medical marijuana and CBD products in the news. The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky just hosted their annual Howard Bost Memorial Health Policy Forum. The entire day was devoted to the facts and fiction around medical marijuana. In spite of anecdotal positive experiences with both medical marijuana and CBD products, many important health questions remain to be answered.

So, what have we learned from America’s experiences with substances that applies to how we teach our youth, and prevent a next generation of problems? We’ve learned that advertising is primarily crafted to sell a product, and important facts may be absent from marketing. We have to teach youth how to get beyond superficial marketing to what is really known about substances. 

We’ve learned that well designed objective research is critical – a few people’s stories of assistance from a substance are not enough data from which to make a decision. We’ve learned that because of the differences in teenage and adult brains, there usually are more serious unintended negative consequences for youth who use certain substances. And, we more clearly understand that parents must teach — and model — better responsible decision making.

Unfortunately, it can be concluded that the desire to make huge profits from products often seems to blur the truth, suppress compassion, emphasize short-term gain vs long-term health consequences, and wipe away corporate ethical decision making.

Say it isn’t so, but we have a lot of evidence that says it is.

Kathy L. Miles is coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy.