Where there's smoke, there's fire. But what about when there isn't? That's the question currently being debated about e-cigarettes, battery-operated devices that provide inhaled doses of liquid nicotine (the addictive drug that makes it so hard to quit regular cigarettes). Because the vapor cloud they produce isn't technically smoke, e-cigs have thus far avoided regulation. The companies that make them are free to advertise on TV and market as they please (I get daily spam e-mails, and one brand even has a sponsorship deal with NASCAR). They can sell to virtually anyone—including kids. More than half of all states have no age restrictions at all, and the share of middle- and high-schoolers who've used them doubled to 10 percent in 2012. No doubt that number has gone up further this year, as e-cigarette sales have tripled to $1.5 billion, according to Bloomberg, prompting big tobacco to enter the business.
The appeal to teens and even tweens is obvious: They are cheaper than cigarettes; are sold in numerous colors, shapes, and sizes; and come in hundreds of kid-enticing flavors, including vanilla, chocolate, and peach schnapps. This makes them palatable, as well as a fashion statement for children who, at an awkward stage, find vaping is a way to look cool and fit in—much the way many teens past and present have gotten started smoking regular cigarettes.
The irony is that e-cigarettes were invented and initially marketed as a means of helping smokers kick the habit. Instead, they have turned into a transitional tool that can get kids (and young adults) hooked on nicotine and, eventually, light up for real. Even if they stay with vaping rather than turning to smoking, there is no telling whether e-cigarettes are safe. There has been virtually no testing thus far, yet already there are strong indications that e-cigs may pose health hazards. Aside from the nicotine (one e-cig has 20 mgs of the drug, twice the level that could prove fatal to a child, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics), the FDA has found evidence of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals. The Mayo Clinic reports that, "There is some short-term data suggesting that e-cigarettes may cause airway irritation." One can only guess that, just as cigarettes were one deemed safe—or at least not unsafe—we will eventually learn about the true dangers they pose. Whether or not you agree with that conjecture, parents must at least concede that these devices don't belong in the hands of anyone who's too young to purchase regular cigarettes.
There is hope: The FDA is in the process of deciding whether to oversee and regulate the sale and advertising of e-cigarettes, and many states are seeking stricter rules. Until that happens (and even if it does), you should warn your kids to stay away from e-cigarettes. Explain that far from being a harmless habit, they contain a dangerous, addictive drug that can make it impossible to stop once you start—and that, like regular cigarettes, we may well find out one day that they are a bonafide killer.
Photo of young woman smoking electronic cigarette, isolated, via Shutterstock