Following recent studies showing that electronic cigarettes have multiple negative effects on oral health, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has released a report and website raising public health concerns about their increased use among youth and young adults—with about one in 6 high school students using an e-cigarette in the previous month in 2015. Yet some advocates maintain that e-cigarettes can play a positive role in breaking smokers of long-term habits.
The report finds that while nicotine is a highly addictive drug at any age, youth and young adults are uniquely vulnerable to the long-term consequences of exposing the brain to it and concludes that youth use of nicotine in any form is unsafe. It also states that secondhand aerosol exhaled into the air by e-cigarette users can expose others to potentially harmful chemicals.
“All Americans need to know that e-cigarettes are dangerous to youth and young adults,” said Murthy. “Any tobacco use, including e-cigarettes, is a health threat, particularly to young people.”
Written and reviewed by more than 150 experts, the report is the first comprehensive federal review of the public health impact of e-cigarettes on the nation’s youth and young adults. It also describes industry influences on e-cigarette use and outlines potential actions to prevent youth and young adults from its harms. These include:
- Continuing to regulate e-cigarettes at the federal level to protect public health;
- Raising and strongly enforcing minimum age-of-sale laws for all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes;
- Incorporating e-cigarettes into smoke-free policies;
- Regulating e-cigarette marketing;
- Sponsoring high-impact media campaigns to educate the public on the harms of e-cigarettes among young people;
- Expanding research efforts related to e-cigarettes.
“Protecting our nation’s youth from the harms of tobacco and nicotine is a top priority for Health and Human Services (HHS) and this administration. And this report, outlining the harms of e-cigs and providing clear steps to reduce their impact on our kids, is an important step in our fight,” said HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell.
“We cannot let the enormous progress we’ve made toward a tobacco-free generation be undermined by e-cigarettes and other emerging tobacco products.”
The report notes that e-cigarettes are now the most commonly used tobacco product among youth and that their use is strongly associated with the use of other tobacco products including cigarettes. Also, e-cigarettes are marketed by promoting flavors and using media channels and approaches that have been used for marketing conventional tobacco products to youth and young adults.
“We need parents, teachers, healthcare providers, and other influencers to help make it clear that e-cigarettes contain harmful chemicals and are not okay for kids to use,” said Murthy. “Today’s report gives them the facts about how these products can be harmful to young people’s health.”
However, some advocates are concerned that the Surgeon General’s report overlooks the potential benefits that e-cigarettes may provide adult smokers or traditional tobacco cigarettes who are trying to kick the habit. These supporters include Jeff Stier, director of the Risk Analysis Division at the National Center for Public Policy Research, an independent and conservative think tank.
“The Surgeon General would have been wise to adopt the clear approach used by the Royal College of Physicians in its landmark report last year by saying ‘It’s very simple: adult cigarette smokers who switch to e-cigarettes dramatically reduce their risk by using “nicotine without smoke,”’” said Stier.
Stier applauded the Food and Drug Administration and almost every state for banning sales of e-cigarettes to minors, noting that “Kids should not use any nicotine product, including e-cigarettes, or even zero-nicotine e-cigarettes.” But he added that public health authorities “have the capacity to distinguish between keeping these products out of the hands of minors while at the same time making sure adult smokers recognize that e-cigarettes present a dramatically lower risk than cigarettes.”
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