Stop the youth vaping trend

3 June 2024

By, Eleanor Pinugu, Inquirer

When vapes were first introduced to the market, they came in inconspicuous, black packaging that could easily be mistaken for a USB drive. Today, however, vapes come in a multitude of colors—neons, metallics, and pastels—and a variety of playful shapes. Its once-understated appearance has been replaced by visually striking devices that cater perfectly to the younger generations’ love for aesthetics.

This strategy appears to be highly effective. The prevalence of e-cigarette use among adolescents has skyrocketed. Globally, about 25 percent of adolescents have tried e-cigarettes, and 11 percent are current users. According to the 2019 Global Youth Tobacco Survey, 14 percent—or one in every seven—Filipinos aged 13 to 15 years old are already using e-cigarettes.

In public health, there is a strategy known as harm reduction, which focuses on reducing the health and social harms associated with substance abuse, acknowledging that complete abstinence might be difficult. E-cigarettes were initially promoted within the context of harm reduction as a safer alternative for people addicted to cigarettes and nicotine. However, e-cigarette use has become wildly popular among nonsmokers. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 40 percent of e-cigarette users are under 25, including many young users who never smoked before vaping.

Tobacco products should not be marketed to young people but this is what the tactics of e-cigarette companies have undeniably achieved. As one New York Times article accurately put it, vapes have received a “Gen Z makeover.” Apart from making the product look physically appealing, vapes now come in enticing and innocent-sounding fruit and candy-inspired flavors. A 2023 British study reported that subjects aged 11 to 16 associated colorful e-cigarettes with being “trendy,” and saw them as a “fashion accessory.” Among young users, vaping has become something to flaunt, rather than something one does discreetly.

The popularity of vaping among young people has serious health implications. The adolescent brain is especially vulnerable to the effects of nicotine. Studies have shown that e-cigarette use during these formative years can alter brain development, affecting learning, memory, and attention. Vaping has also been associated with severe respiratory diseases, including a condition known as e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI). In the Philippines, there is already a documented case of a 22-year-old male suffering a fatal heart attack following severe lung injury attributed to daily vaping.

The neural and behavioral changes induced by nicotine exposure can also have long-term impacts, potentially setting the stage for lifelong nicotine addiction. Research has also shown that young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes later on. To allow this alarming trend to continue is to erase the significant progress made in tobacco control and the fight against smoking-related diseases.

Last week, the Department of Health (DOH) issued an urgent call to enforce stricter regulations on e-cigarettes and vape products, specifically to curb usage among young people. We should take a cue from other countries and jurisdictions that have already made a definitive stance on this issue. In California, since research showed that young users are drawn to e-cigarettes because of the flavors, public health experts pushed for a ban on flavored tobacco products. This led to an immediate decline in e-cigarette sales and lowered high-school vaping rates. Early this year, the United Kingdom has also announced it will restrict flavors, ban single-use vapes, and regulate store displays. It should be explored how similar measures could be adopted here.

Packaging has always been a significant tool for companies to promote their products and influence consumer behavior. This tactic is evident in the way e-cigarette companies have designed their products to look like fun accessories rather than harmful substances. To counteract this, we can take inspiration from the regulations imposed on cigarette boxes. By mandating that e-cigarette packaging includes graphic health warnings, we can potentially make users, especially the youth, think twice before purchasing.

Legislative efforts should be supported by public awareness campaigns to educate young people about the risks. In the same way tobacco companies have always savvily tapped into popular culture to make their products more appealing, the DOH should also consider getting the help of young celebrities and youth advocates to dispel the misconception that e-cigarettes are harmless and to talk about the health hazards associated with vaping.

E-cigarettes can be a helpful tool and safer alternative for smokers seeking to quit. But it is unacceptable how these products are being marketed to a much younger demographic, potentially fostering a lifelong nicotine addiction. History has shown us how powerful advocacy groups and legislation could be in keeping tobacco companies in check. We need to act again, and urgently so.