Vaping (the use of electronic cigarettes) has been taking the world by storm. If you haven’t come across them, they are controversial devices which heat a liquid solution to create an aerosol which is then inhaled by the user.
THE RISE OF VAPING CULTURE
The practise of vaping has risen dramatically around the world - from about seven million in 2011 to 41 million in 2018 - as smoking rates decline. The global vaping market is now estimated to be worth $19.3bn (£15.5bn) - up from $6.9bn (£5.5bn) five years ago. There are around 3 million UK users. Vaping is particularly popular among younger cohorts - there are about 10 million vapers in the US and nearly half of those are under 35, with 18-24-year-olds the most regular users.
E-cigarettes have been culturally accepted as a way to help smokers reduce or stop smoking regular tobacco products. Many health professionals believe vaping to be safer than traditional smoking, which kills up to half its users - 8 million people per year according to the World Health Organization. This makes the tobacco epidemic one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced.
However, e-cigarettes have been attracting younger users - even those under 18 and who haven’t smoked tobacco products before. Why? The product created by vaping companies like JUUL, are attracting kids because of the colours, packaging and flavour of the product. Flavours cited by users include bubblegum, berry, mango and caramel. Some vapes, like JUULS are also extremely compact and easy to hide, which means young students are getting away with ‘JUULing’ in class.
Improper marketing of the products (as less-risky alternatives) has led to warning letters being sent to e-cigarette companies. Now, the US President has announced a ban on the sale of flavoured e-cigarettes, citing them as a ‘new problem’, especially for children.
VAPING-RELATED ILLNESSES ON THE RISE
WHO refers to vapes / e-cigarettes as “ENDS” - Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems - and cites them as a serious public health concern. Not only can they lead to nicotine addiction, the long-term consequences of using e-cigarettes remain unclear. There have been warnings about health risks related to vaping for a number of years, but the urgency around these has increased in recent weeks.
This urgency has been spurred on by an increase in the report of a number of lung illnesses and deaths, tied to vaping, in the US. There have been 805 reported cases of respiratory illness/lung injury and 12 confirmed deaths. Nearly two thirds (62%) of patients are 18 to 34 years old - 22% of patients are between 18-21 and 16% are under 18.
"I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. I literally couldn’t even move my hands…" Castillo, 19
Many of the 450 reported cases are young people, with an average age of 19. Simah Herman was rushed to hospital at aged 18, having been ‘vaping’ for 2 years. She had to be put in a medically induced coma. She never saw any issues with vaping when she started:
“I didn’t think of myself as a smoker. Like, it’s just a different kind of smoke. The vaping just makes it seem like nothing. Like you’re doing nothing wrong.”
Many young people, like Herman, simply find the act of smoking addictive: “Now I don’t necessarily crave the nicotine. I don’t necessarily crave the weed. It’s just craving, like, the act of smoking.” And, aside from respiratory illness, other deadly dangers associated with the battery powered product have also been reported. A 24 year old American died this year “when his vape pen's battery blew up sending shards of metal into his face and neck and severing an artery.”
ILLICIT THC IS A KEY PROBLEM
There is debate that traditional tobacco companies and skeptics are trying to end the vaping trend by making it seem worse, or more dangerous, than smoking. Young users are also using e-cigarettes to relax and combat anxiety. Many critics are now citing the use of illicit or bootleg THC (the primary intoxicant in cannabis) vapor products as the source of more serious illnesses attributed to e-cigarettes (the rate of teens vaping THC products increased by 60 percent from 8.6 percent in 2016 to 13.8 in 2018). This is because much of the THC products are bought on the black market.
“This isn’t a #vaping crisis. It’s a black market crisis. #cannabis #truth” Todd Harrison
“About 77% [of those being treated for lung illnesses associated with vaping] reported using THC-containing products; 36% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products.” CDC
So the push-back against the vaping ban is not only because of these grey areas around the cause of respiratory illness, but also because they feel vaping is a useful tool for saving lives that may have been prematurely lost due to tobacco smoking addictions: “The best thing a smoker can do for their health is to quit, saving up to a day of life for every four smoke-free days… [e-cigarettes] are not safe, they are just much less harmful than smoking.”
Either way, it’s impossible to ignore the stark warning signs, especially for underage kids.
While young people are turning away from infamous substances like tobacco that previous generations were harmed by, in favour of ‘less detrimental’ experimental products, it’s wise to listen to the warning signs...
There is a learning here for all companies and organisations to challenge themselves to think about the short and the long term consequences of the products and services they create (from an ethical and functional perspective). Ethically-influenced consumption is only on the rise because teens are the most socially conscious generation of shoppers yet. They will be quick to turn against things that do not fulfil their function, or prove not to be as ethical as they had hoped. Plus, in the context of global climate catastrophe, profit-generating capitalistic endeavours will only be further scrutinised with young people demanding better from businesses and brands.
For more on youth and cannabis have a read of this previous 52INSIGHTS.