The growing trend of vaping amongst young people has set alarm bells ringing for parents, policy makers and health professionals.
First marketed as an aid to people who wanted to stop smoking, e-cigarettes also called vaping products are now being used by many people who never smoked. And many of these are young teenagers who are now addicted to nicotine as a result.
Chris Macey, Head of Advocacy at the Irish Heart Foundation believes this is no accident.
He told the Donegal Post: “The Irish Heart Foundation is deeply concerned about how a whole new generation of children are at risk of becoming addicted to nicotine due to cynical marketing tactics directed at them by e-cigarette brands.”
The result is disastrous for those who have been campaigning to reduce smoking among young people.
“The huge success of tobacco control policies in reducing youth smoking rates from 41% to just 13% in the two decades up to 2015 in the case of 15 to 16 year-olds is under serious threat,” said Mr Macey.
Indeed, in the US the situation is so serious that the surgeon general has declared e-cigarette use among young people to be an epidemic. And in Australia which has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world, e-cigarettes are banned.
Ireland is still some way behind when it comes to e-cigarette policy and is yet to take a strong stance. This is despite one in four Irish teens aged from 15 to 17 having vaped.
The high instance may be surprising to some. But one Donegal Town parent who spoke to the Donegal Post had no difficulty believing this statistic.
“When I found out my son was vaping and smoking I was shocked,” she said. “I am still sick thinking about it.
“If anyone thinks their child is not doing it, they should go down to the Old Abbey at lunchtime and see the amount of schoolchildren down there. They might start with vaping but many of them are going on to smoking. I know from their uniforms that many of them are in first, second or third year. They shouldn’t even be leaving the school.
“Parents really need to know this because it is very worrying.”
One thing that particularly troubled this parent was the attractive nature of vaping products.
“It is very clear that they are aimed at young people,” she said. “When I saw them first in shops I thought they were sweets or drinks. It was only when I caught my son at it that I began to pay more attention.”
With products coming in bright or pastel colours and in flavours like bubblebum and mint chocolate milkshake, these certainly seem to be aimed at people who have never smoked. Those who want to quit smoking tend to prefer flavours closer to traditional tobacco products. And despite the confectionary style names, all those products contain nicotine.
Mr Macey raises an even more worrying point.
“Many e-cigarette brands are owned by cigarette companies,” he said. “This raises additional concerns around e-cigarettes acting as a gateway to tobacco smoking, promoted by companies which will have no qualms in using their control of children’s nicotine addiction to maximise profit.
“Despite the clear dangers, there are no regulations preventing the sale of e-cigarettes to young people. We are calling on legislators to change, with a ban on sales to under 18s, along with laws prohibiting e-cigarette product advertising through all communication mediums and at the point of sale.”
A number of shops in south Donegal have of their own accord adopted an over-18 only policy. This of course helps to some degree. But it has also created an element of dealing by older students who have no difficulty getting served. They in turn sell the products on to younger teens. Some shops have also reported a serious problem with theft of vaping devices and flavoured products.
In Ireland, laws relating to smoking are imposed by the HSE. And while there are currently no laws prohibiting the sale of these products to young people in Ireland, the organisation does recognise that it is a growing issue.
In response to a query from the Donegal Post, a spokesperson said: “The HSE has met with the Department of Health and will, in conjunction with other stakeholders, provide advice and support to it, in reviewing and revising government on tobacco control policy in Ireland as required.”
The HSE advises people who smoke that currently e-cigarettes are not recommended as a help to stop smoking because the safety and effectiveness profile is uncertain. People who want to stop smoking and /or using e-cigarettes, and who want support, can use HSE QUIT services and access help.
As well as being a gateway to other tobacco products, there are grave concerns that chemicals used in vaping products cause serious and irreversible lung damage.
Popcorn lung is often mentioned in connection with health concerns about e-cigarettes. This is the common term for a serious, incurable and potentially fatal disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. It is caused by inhaling chemicals which scar air sacs and lead to thickening and narrowing of airways. Symptoms are like those of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
At one time this disease was very rare. But just over a decade ago, an American GP noted an exceptionally high instance among his patients. He looked at what they had in common and discovered they all worked in a local popcorn factory. Further investigation linked the disease to a chemical called diacetyl. This is used to give a buttery flavour to popcorn, caramel and processed dairy products.
The factory removed diacetyl from its production line but found that its replacements caused similar problems.
Even though its connection to popcorn lung is well known, diacetyl is still a common ingredient in e-cigarettes. So are a number of other chemicals known to be equally harmful when inhaled. There is some debate as to whether e-cigarettes cause popcorn lung and other health problems. But the lack of certainty is largely viewed as being due to widescale vaping being a relatively new phenomenon.
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