Writing on the bathroom wall? New message for teens on vaping

WASHINGTON — Next to the scribbled numbers and scratched initials, high school students across the country can expect a different message on bathroom stalls: one from the government.

In its new $60 million campaign, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is targeting teens to stop what experts call an “almost ubiquitous” and “growing epidemic” of e-cigarette use among youth. In 2017, the National Youth Tobacco Survey reported more than 2 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes.

“Just in 2016, alone, more than 42 percent of high school-aged kids around the country had tried an e-cigarette,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.

“And this is not a cost-free proposition.”

Despite the common presumption that e-cigarettes are safe, Zeller said the flavored nicotine-laced liquid that’s vaporized can impact brain development by rewiring it to crave more of the highly addictive substance. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a single pod of e-cigarette liquid for JUUL, a popular vaping device among teens for its USB-like shape, contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes.

“And our brains don’t develop fully until we’re in our early to mid-20s,” Zeller said.

The FDA’s campaign, which includes targeted digital ads in addition to posters placed in more than 10,000 U.S. high schools, will also hit on the harmful chemicals found in e-cigarette vapor, such as formaldehyde and metal particles. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics found several carcinogenic compounds generated by e-cigarettes.

Zeller said another danger of e-cigarettes is their gateway effect.

“The studies show that a kid who experiments with an e-cigarette turns out to be more likely to try a regular cigarette,” he said. “This jeopardizes all of the progress we’ve made in reducing kids’ use of tobacco products.”

The new campaign comes around the same time the agency issued more than 1,300 warning letters to retailers who illegally sold JUUL and other e-cigarette products to minors, and launched an investigation into whether more than 40 e-cigarette products are illegally marketed “outside of the agency’s compliance policy.”

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., according to the CDC. And nearly all of tobacco use begins during youth and young adulthood.

“(We need kids to understand) that this is not a cost-free proposition; that the nicotine in e-cigarettes can rewire their brains; that other compounds in that aerosol can include formaldehyde and metal particles, so that kids are not walking around thinking, ‘Well, I’m not smoking cigarettes, so it’s OK to use an e-cigarette,’” Zeller said.

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