Tobacco use among young people is an old problem that now challenges a new generation in a new form: vaping.
Quite simply, there is no good or harm-free exemplar of smoking. Tobacco use entails embarking on a slow course of ruining your life, which is why I am vigilant when it comes to the subject. My father and husband died from cancer caused by long-term tobacco exposure. It is also impossible for me to count how many patients I have cared for over the years who have voiced their regrets for trying that first cigarette.
A disclaimer is in order here. I have never smoked. In 8th grade, we were shown a movie about the dangers of tobacco, which included a graphic picture of blackened lungs that scared me. I went home and made a plea to my parents who both smoked, to stop. For most, however, it is not that simple. Nicotine addiction is extremely difficult to overcome.1
Now we have a new tobacco-related epidemic on our hands: vaping. The old record from decades ago about the absence of harm from tobacco has been dusted off and replayed,
but the target for current marketing efforts is different. Children, mostly teenagers, are the focus. The deceit has been so significant that in September of this year, the FDA threatened sanctions against Juul Labs, a major producer of vaping products, for erroneous and misleading marketing to children and teenagers about the “less harmful” nature of e-cigarettes.2
Electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) are designed to aerosolize liquids for inhalation. These devices include e-cigarettes, vaporizers, hookah pens, and tank systems, predominantly used to inhale nicotine and cannabis-based compounds. E-cigarettes entered the US market around 2007, and since 2014, they have been the most commonly used tobacco products among youths nationally.3
By 2018, there were 288 models of ENDS on the market and more than 15,500 flavors, referred to as juices.4 Vaping behaviors also escalated considerably in high school students between 2017 and 2018.5 An extensive review of monitoring results of over 43,000 students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades between 2017 and 2018 revealed vaping-related incidences more than doubled in each of these 3 grades. In 2019 alone, the prevalence of vaping in the 30 days before student survey completion was more than 1 in 4 students in 12th grade, more than 1 in 5 in the 10th grade, and more than 1 in 11 in the 8th grade.6 The range of flavor options and the perceptions that vaping is relatively healthy and more socially acceptable than tobacco are considered to be the major drivers in this dramatic increase in use.
As vaping continues to become a widespread issue, many are concerned with its connection to pulmonary diseases. Researchers studied the clinical courses of 53 patients who
were identified in acute-onset pulmonary disease clusters in Wisconsin and Illinois.7
Fifty patients were hospitalized, 32% of whom required intubation and mechanical ventilation; 1 death was reported. The median age of these patients was 19 years. All reported e-cigarette device used before the onset of symptoms, the majority of which (84%) inhaled tetrahydrocannabinol products.8
Several recent reports detailing biopsy and radiological findings are of particular interest to researchers and public health officials. The acute lung injuries associated with vaping
were primarily identified as hypersensitivity pneumonitis, diffuse alveolar hemorrhage, and histopathologic variations of pneumonia.4 The causes remain speculative, but potential etiologies cited include the aerosolization of flavoring compounds, adulteration of devices with tetrahydrocannabinol-based oils or vitamin E, and use of black market vaping products.9
The most recent report of a negative vaping corollary was the development of lung and bladder primary cancers in an animal model where short-term (12 weeks) e-cigarette smoke exposure in mice was associated with the presentation of these malignancies.10
The United States needs to set a global example for the prevention of ENDS-related illnesses. To do this, 4 phenomena must be addressed:
1. The young age of ENDS users is of utmost concern. Continuous, unconstrained use of ENDS in this demographic represents the first generation
of teenagers in the modern world to be allowed to put their health and longevity at risk, unchecked, with alleged long- term negative corollaries.
2. The addictive nature of nicotine, especially in young individuals, cannot be ignored. Efforts to protect youth from using nicotine during adolescence is imperative. The developing brain is particularly susceptible to permanent changes from nicotine use.11 Results of epidemiological studies have also shown that smoking in this age group is a first step toward heroin and cocaine addiction.12 Chemical changes in dopamine-receiving neurons induced by nicotine are likely to disrupt the brain’s normal reward circuitry and prime the brain for enhanced sensitivity to potentially abusive substances.13
3. Vaping may increase the incidence of dual users of nicotine products. There is growing evidence that rather than substitute conventional tobacco for e-cigarettes, there are more dual users—those who vape and smoke cigarettes.14,15
4. ENDS may be linked to future cases of lung cancer.5 Due to the contemporary nature of this epidemic, the long-term consequences of this health risk are unknown. However, due to historical data associated with nicotine use, it is highly suspect that a link between e-cigarettes and cancer will unfold.
Oncology nurses must keep up with the evolving scientific basis of the perils of vaping.
As trusted educators, we need to maintain informational vigilance about this health hazard. This topic may evolve in discussions with patients as the use of cannabis products during cancer treatment is deliberated. It may also present as patients and families voice concern about their children’s or grandchildren’s use of ENDS. I don’t feel this phenomenon will go away soon, which is all the more reason to focus on our evidence-based astuteness as we advocate for patients and families and perhaps our own loved one.