New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an emergency ban on flavored electronic cigarette liquids on Sunday, following a rash of lung illnesses linked to vaping in teenagers and young adults.
With six deaths and the number of reported illnesses and hospitalizations growing to around 380, organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are warning against vaping, especially products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Most vaping products that contain THC also contain vitamin E acetate, according to samples tested by the FDA.
The vitamin E acetate is present in topical consumer products or dietary supplements, and the agency is unsure of its effects when inhaled. Though the FDA isn’t sure if the substance is connected to the mysterious illness leaving its victims fatigued, nauseous and short of breath, it urges consumers to “avoid buying vaping products on the street, and to refrain from using THC oil or modifying/adding any substances to products purchased in stores.”
New York is also raising the age required to purchase vaping products from 18 to 21 starting Nov. 13. Additionally, Cuomo plans to introduce legislation to stop the marketing and advertising of products toward young people.
“Vaping is dangerous,” Cuomo said in a press conference on Sunday. “It’s addicting millions of young people to nicotine at a very early age, some would argue even earlier than cigarettes.”
In addition to the New York State emergency regulations, the Trump administration announced on Sept. 11 a potential federal regulation on the tobacco market that would ban flavored e-cigarettes and vaporizers — an attempt to deter teenagers and young adults from using tobacco products.
A clinical associate professor at the Renaissance School of Medicine who’s researched e-cigarette use among youths, Rachel Boykan, agreed with the government’s warning. She explained that the vapor from an e-cigarette is actually a powerful aerosol that is technically a gas.
“People call it vaping, and those of us who work in this area, we do refer to it as vaping to communicate with people, but if you talk to people who do research on it, they really call it an aerosol,” she said. “The aerosol has things in it that we are just learning about.”
Boykan suspects the components of aerosol’s nanoparticles in combination with vitamin E oil could cause respiratory irritation.
“I don’t think it’s safe to say it’s only modified vaping products (and many of the “regular” products can be modified),” she wrote in an email. “There are plenty of potential explanations from regular products – including [toxins like] nanoparticles, heavy metals such as copper, polyethylene glycol and vegetable glycerin (implicated in some animal studies), and the flavorings – many of which are known respiratory irritants.”
Boykan pointed out that most vaporizer pods also contain nicotine, a substance derived from the tobacco plant that is prevalent in cigarettes. She said that the chemical is as addictive as hard drugs such as cocaine.
“90 percent of smokers start smoking before the age of 18,” Boykan said. “The adolescent brain is really susceptible to the addictive quality of nicotine.”
Boykan added that the recent generation of vaporizer pods use a derivation of nicotine called nicotine salt, which makes the chemical easier to inhale and thus introduces “people to much higher concentrations.”
Although e-cigarettes are often used to help older smokers kick nicotine addictions, Boykan said on the contrary, her research shows that vaporizers and e-cigarettes make young people three to five times more likely to start smoking cigarettes.
Marketing plays a key role in influencing young people to start vaping, Boykan said. She explained that when they see vaping shown in the media, some start to believe it is a normal activity.
“It’s completely marketed to kids — you see the e-liquids that have the little cartoons and the flavors that is clearly appealing to kids,” she said. “It’s exactly what the tobacco industry did with cigarettes until they weren’t allowed to anymore. So there is no advertising restrictions right now on this stuff, which there are a lot of in cigarettes.”
Although Boykan fears that tobacco lobbyists might attempt limit restrictions on the vaping industry, she is still hopeful that the “free market” vape products occupy right now will be reevaluated and restricted by the FDA.
“Flavors are what hook kids,” she said. “So if we get rid of the flavors, and turn this into a medicine, and study it as a medicine to help smokers quit like they say it’s supposed to be, it would be great.”
The ban of flavored e-liquids will directly affect Stony Brook University students who vape. Hannah Johnson, a sophomore biology major, has been using a vaporizer with flavoring since high school. She prefers fruity flavors such as mango, she said.
“Everybody at my high school had them — a lot of people in my friend group — and I got one just because they did,” she said.
Johnson can’t keep count of the number of hits she takes during the day. She was upset that flavored e-liquids could see tighter restrictions, but understood that this will help people quit. She said she never expected that vaping would kill people.
Lenny James, a sophomore biology major, only started vaping last week. James said he takes a few hits a day.
“I just wanted a quick buzz every now and again,” he said. “It’s better than getting high all the time.”
James said that the six deaths doctors believe are associated with vaping-related illnesses seem inadequate for the government to act on.
“I just feel like so many people die from so many other things, like the opioid crisis, which has claimed a whole bunch [of lives], and other issues that aren’t health related at all, such as bullying and mental health,” James said. “I don’t think that’s a big enough number yet.”
Vincent Termini, a senior political science major, started vaping in high school with a JUUL. He has started using a STIG vaporizer after JUUL stopped making the flavors he likes.
“Honestly a few of my friends had it,” he said. “I wasn’t about it. I thought it was stupid at first, and then I was out one night, I tried it and said ‘this is kinda cool,’ and then it snowballed from there,” he said.
Termini said that he understands why the government might ban flavored e-liquid and that the flavoring is the reason why he started vaping.
“I 100% would have never touched a cigarette or any nicotine stuff if it wasn’t for a mango flavored JUUL,” he said. “Me personally, I’m hooked on this because of the flavored stuff.”
Termini said it would be hard for him to keep vaping after the regulation was implemented. He pointed out that the government hasn’t banned cigarettes, even though it has been known that they cause lung disease for decades. But for now, Termini admits he’s hooked.
“I do want to stop,” he said. “I’ve tried to stop multiple times. It’s harder than it looks. It’s easier said than done.”