By Karen Oslund

The good news is, California has made 30 years of progress in reducing cigarette smoking among both youth and adults and now boasts the second-lowest smoking prevalence rate, right behind Utah. The bad news is that a new threat to our lungs and health is already here and addicting the next generation: e-cigarettes.

“Vaping” is the word to describe inhaling aerosolized nicotine vapor and other chemicals into the lungs through the use of an “e-cig,” or electronic cigarette. The energy source is a rechargeable battery rather than a match and e-cig devices are designed to look like a ball point pen or computer flash drive. A new device on the market that is being aggressively marketed not only looks like a computer thumb drive, but recharges in a computer’s USB port. By eliminating the ashy mess of old-fashioned cigarettes and promoting the misleading notion that vaping is less harmful than smoking, e-cig companies are making strides in addicting both youth and adults and taking the profit to the bank.

Vaping among our Mendocino County youth is prevalent and on the rise, according to local school staff. Empty cartridges found around campuses are the physical evidence that youth are using e-cigs, which can also be used to aerosolize and inhale marijuana. According to Tobacco Free California (tobbacofreeca.com) the use of e-cigarettes has overtaken traditional cigarette smoking in the 18 to 24-year-old age group and is now the nicotine delivery system of choice. Additionally, according to TobaccoFreeCA, e-cigarette use is occurring in youth who would not have smoked cigarettes or used other tobacco products. Vaping fluids come in candy and fruit flavors that are designed to appeal to kids, who then are more likely transition to traditional cigarettes and to switch back and forth. Vaping is also easier to conceal than smoking.

Experimentation with tobacco products happens in our younger years. Fifty-three-year olds, like myself, rarely start smoking. In California, 67% of current and former smokers had started by the age of 18 and 98% had started by the age of 26, according to data from the 2014 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Youth experiment, become addicted, and spend their adult lives trying to quit. Youth experimentation is one reason that e-cig manufacturers market to a young audience.

What can we do?

We must educate our youth that vaping is unhealthy. E-cig vapor contains many of the same chemicals as cigarette smoke, including formaldehyde, heavy metals and particulates. Cancer may take years or even decades to form, so even though e-cigs are too new for conclusive research to establish how dangerous they are compared to traditional cigarettes, our good old-fashioned horse sense should tell us that inhaling chemicals and particulates into our lungs is bad for our health. Tobacco is responsible for many types of cancer beyond lung cancer, including cancers of the larynx, mouth, bladder, pancreas, colon and stomach. Tell the potential e-cig users in your life not to become a statistic in the cancer registry that helps demonstrate that vaping causes cancer.

Many of us Gen-X-ers grew up bouncing around loose in the backseat of the car, playing in the sandbox with no sunscreen, and breathing in second-hand smoke. Now that we know better, we can protect our own children from these hazards. The evidence is impossible to ignore: smoking causes cancer and lung disease and is a preventable cause of death. “Vaping” should not be given the benefit of the doubt, even if it comes in bubble gum flavor.