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Editorial: Hazards of vaping show that nicotine is not kid stuff

Electronic cigarettes were invented and first sold as a means to help cigarette smokers on the path to quitting. The inhaling of vapors from the devices is supposed to approximate the feeling of smoking, but without exposure to many of the carcinogens found in conventional tobacco products.

Eventually, kids got into the act. You can find a “vaping” store in just about every town in Western New York, and it’s not just former smokers who are fueling the growth of the industry.

It turns out that nicotine pods that come in flavors like mango, fruit medley and creme brulee are attractive to teenagers. Who knew?

Those exotic flavors are featured in e-cigarettes made by Juul Labs, makers of one of the most popular brands, and which is under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb last week said teen use of e-cigarettes has turned into an “epidemic of nicotine addiction,” while announcing a crackdown against retailers for allegedly selling vaping products to those younger than 18. Gottlieb ordered the industry’s top five companies to submit detailed plans for stopping sales to minors, threatening them with removal of their products from the market.

The same week, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center released the findings of a study showing that nicotine levels in some e-cigarettes – particularly the pod variety – are nearly equal to what’s in traditional cigarettes.

Nicotine is not kid stuff. The FDA chief is right to crack down on manufacturers and retailers that either market to teens or turn a blind eye to who is buying their products.

Local governments have a role to play, too. Andrew Hyland, chairman of the Health Behavior department at Roswell Park and head of the center’s tobacco control program, says there are now more than 350 jurisdictions nationwide that have implemented “Tobacco 21” policies, raising the minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21. And that includes e-cigarettes.

In New York, many counties – including Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and New York City – have raised the age to 21. Erie and Niagara counties should follow suit.

In 2015, the Erie County Legislature passed a law prohibiting the use of e-cigarettes in most indoor public places, such as restaurants, bars and shopping centers. In 2016, County Executive Mark Poloncarz pushed an effort to ban the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies. The effort stalled, partly thanks to push back from pharmacies and other retailers.

Hyland says that Roswell Park’s smoking cessation programs do not recommend the use of e-cigarettes as a means to quit smoking.

“E-cigarettes do not yet have evidence to confirm they boost people’s chances at quitting nor that they make it harder for them – the science just isn’t there yet,” he said. He added there are “several FDA-approved treatments to help people get off cigarettes that we recommend to smokers looking us to for help.”

Hyland stresses that while alarms have been sounding over vaping, the No. 1 tobacco-related threat to public health is still cigarette smoking.

“Cigarette smoking is responsible for about 2,000 deaths each and every year in the eight-county Western New York region and more than 25,000 deaths annually statewide,” Hyland said. “We know with certainty a youth who regularly smokes cigarettes has a 50 percent chance of dying prematurely; reducing cigarette smoking is the single most important thing that can be done to improve public health.”

Whether it’s cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco or e-cigarettes, tobacco products are here to stay. There’s no good reason that young adults can’t wait until they’re 21 to use them.

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