While smoking is less popular than ever, the nicotine craze is far from over - it just has a new look. E-cigarettes, vapes, and Juul pods have taken over where traditional cigarettes left off, initially by purporting to help adults stop smoking. But because of their sleek designs and fun flavors like mango and bubble gum, teens have gotten a taste for vaping, and since these products don’t create the same smoke or smell that cigarettes do, it’s harder for parents to realize there’s a problem until it’s already out of hand. On this episode of Next Question, award-winning journalist Katie Couric takes a deep dive into nicotine addiction and vaping culture to find out how vaping became a teen epidemic right under our noses.
First, Katie talks with Jack Waxman, who was a senior in high school when he started noticing his classmates using Juuls more and more frequently; use went “from 10% to 20% in one year...that’s the largest single year increase of a drug in recorded history,” he informs us. Teen vaping habits concerned him so much, he did a press conference about it with Chuck Schumer. “In 2009, Congress banned flavored cigarettes and put all these regulations on cigarettes as part of the Tobacco Act. But...e-cigarettes were exempted from this regulation,” he says. Now, an estimated three million kids are addicted to vaping. So even though “the number of people smoking cigarettes have reached record lows,” Katie says, “now we have a new generation of nicotine addicts.”
The speed of the trend was part of the problem, as journalist Kate Zernike found out when she interviewed principals and teachers. “These things had appeared in the fall of...2017, and suddenly, by spring, it was everywhere, and the schools did not know what to do. They were completely unprepared.” Parents were caught off-guard, too; ”with cigarettes, it was harder to hide. You could smell it. You could see it,” a mother named Lori points out. “Vaping is undercover.”
And in more ways than one: Kate also realized that teens don’t always know that e-cigs contain nicotine. “The kid would be horrified at the idea of smoking a cigarette, but vaping somehow seemed cleaner to them. It didn’t seem addictive...they would have arguments with me about, ‘Oh, no, there’s no nicotine in Juul.’ So I think there was a lot of misunderstanding about what exactly it was,” she says, especially since “there are 18 cigarettes” worth of nicotine in a single Juul pod. Associate Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Renaissance School of Medicine, Dr. Rachel Boykan, has been conducting extensive research into vaping; she’s found that Juul users had nicotine levels “comparable, in some cases even higher,” than cigarette smokers. “It took us decades to get a handle on cigarettes...I don't want to wait 30 years to find out the long term effects.”
Addiction specialist Dr. Jonathan Avery has a little good news on that front, at least: “As perceived harm goes up, use goes down...as they see their peer group and momentum shifting in the other direction, I think more will quit,” he says. “This is one instance where I think social media and the fast news pace that we have today can be helpful...I think we can all digest and modify behaviors quicker, hopefully, than what took decades with cigarettes.” Listen to this episode of Next Question with Katie Couric to find out more.
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Photo: Sarah Johnson