Prior to the recent state legislative session, there was a push by public health officials to raise the tax on tobacco products and also to re-classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products. The proposed tax did not make it through, but the reclassification did which is projected to help minimize the consumption of the products by youth.
By Melissa Anderson
Even so, the threat these products pose to youth is very real, and the companies that make them are directing their marketing efforts to entice new users. One e-cigarette product, in particular, that is very popular among kids is the Juul device. This product looks like a USB stick, but instead of saving important information, it delivers a dose of nicotine 20 times greater than a single cigarette. It does this by heating up the liquid content found in pods that are inserted and turning into an aerosol or vapor that can be inhaled by the user.
“Nicotine is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development which continues into the early to mid-20s,” states the CDC.
A study done by the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists showed that nicotine is about as addictive as cocaine and even more addictive than alcohol and barbiturates (anti-anxiety drugs). The Juul brand of e-cigarette contains more than twice the amount of nicotine than its competitors.
As if the dose wasn’t bad enough, the Juul also has a unique take on the type of nicotine it uses. While many e-cigarettes use a chemically modified form of nicotine, the makers of the Juul utilize “nicotine salts” that more closely resemble the natural structure of nicotine found in tobacco leaves.
“This makes the nicotine more readily absorbed into the bloodstream and makes the vapor less harsh so that it is easier to inhale more nicotine for longer periods of time,” the National Center for Health research states.
To further amplify the nicotine, Juul pods contain a greater amount of benzoic acid. This chemical’s properties are used to increase the potency of the “nicotine salts” within the liquid. This increased potency comes at a cost, however, as the CDC notes that benzoic acid is known to cause coughs, sore throat, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting if exposure is constant, which is the case when using a Juul.
The nicotine found in regular and e-cigarettes, like the popular Juul, affects the developing brain of youth in several ways. The human brain does not stop developing until about the age of 25; as a result, adolescent use can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood, and impulse control. Studies have also shown that nicotine affects the connections that are made within the brain.
According to the CDC, each time a new memory is created or a new skill is learned, stronger connections – or synapses – are built between brain cells. Young people’s brains build synapses faster than adult brains. Nicotine changes the way these synapses are formed.
When e-cigarettes, like the Juul, were first marketed to consumers, they were publicized as being a safer alternative to cigarettes and that the product could be used to help regular smokers quit. As time has gone on, the exact opposite has happened.
“It is not replacing cigarette smoking but rather encouraging it. A 2017 study found that non-smoking adults were four times more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes after only 18 months of vaping,” the National Center for Health research states.
While all forms of nicotine consumption are dangerous, from the age-old cigarette and tobacco to the new age e-cigarettes, it is the Juul that is posing the greatest risk to youth right now. The product has only been on the market for two years, but in that time frame it has taken over the e-cigarette world, accounting for approximately 68 percent of the over $2 billion industry.
It’s designed to be discreet and unassuming. A student could easily use this right in class without the teacher ever knowing. The pod cartridges are easy to use and come in a variety of appealing flavors from a refreshing mint or fruit to sweet desserts like creme brulee. It has changed the idea of what tobacco products taste like and the look of addiction.
Within those flavored vessels, it is not just the nicotine that is harmful to those who use them. The vapor that is inhaled could contain:
• Ultra fine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs.
• Flavoring such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease.
• Volatile organic compounds.
• Cancer-causing chemicals.
• Heavy metals such as nickel, tin, and lead.
The packaging that contains the pods may also be misleading. The CDC notes that it is difficult for consumers to know what e-cigarette products contain. For example, some e-cigarettes marketed as containing zero percent nicotine have been found to contain nicotine. Just like with regular cigarettes, what is exhaled can also be dangerous to those around the person inhaling the aerosol.
“Scientists are still working to understand more fully the health effects and harmful doses of e-cigarette contents when they are heated and turned into an aerosol, both for active users who inhale from a device and for those who are exposed to the aerosol secondhand,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states.
What parents, youth, and communities need to understand is that even though it has a modern package and delivery system, nicotine in any form is dangerous to developing adolsecents and adults no matter what.