E-cigarettes are rising in popularity with young people, but new studies show their adverse side effects. (Cole Elsasser/Emerald Archives)

The increased popularity of e-cigarettes among today’s youth is no secret. According to the Youth Tobacco Survey, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youth e-cigarette use increased tenfold between 2011 and 2015, and then-U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy called e-cigarette use among young people a “major public health concern” in a public health survey in 2016.

Over 3.6 million young people in the U.S. admitted to currently using e-cigarettes in a survey conducted by the CDC in 2018.

The CDC also named vape pens and e-cigarettes a common factor among multiple young people hospitalized for breathing and lung concerns, and an Illinois resident’s recent death was linked to the devices. 

Companies like Juul initially marketed the devices as a way for current tobacco users to quit smoking. According to a study from the New England Journal of Medicine, it was successful overall; e-cigarettes were almost twice as effective for quitting smoking as other products marketed for the same purpose.

However, eighteen-year-old Blake Edwards, a sophomore at the University of Oregon, said young people aren’t smoking e-cigarettes in an effort to wean themselves off of nicotine or tobacco products; it’s just an addiction. 

“The head rush you get from a vape pen brings a little euphoric feeling, and that’s what you get addicted to,” he said. 

Emily Buff Bear, a community health analyst for Lane County Public Health Prevention, said, “The trends we are seeing from the qualitative data we have collected say that youth who did not previously use tobacco products are initiating use of tobacco with e-cigarettes.”

The Juul website says, “those who do not currently use nicotine products should not start.” A spokesperson for the company declined to comment except to point the Emerald to its online pressroom.

University Health Promotions Specialist Cate Clegg-Thorp said that the issue with these devices is the consumer’s inability to know exactly how much nicotine they’re ingesting. 

“The level of nicotine delivered with each puff or pod can vary significantly,” she said. “In many cases it’s extremely high.” For example, one Juul pod contains at least the same amount of nicotine in an entire pack of cigarettes. 

Anna Hejinian, a doctor who works at the UO Health Center, said while there is not enough definitive data to effectively address the health concerns, she does know that the brains of young people aged 18-25 are still “actively laying down networks and frameworks for decision-making, impulse control, memory retention, mood modulation and concentration.” She said these are all things that are inhibited by addictive substances such as nicotine. 

“Stay tuned,” she said on the adverse health effects of e-cigarettes. “There is nothing innocent or remotely healthy in that puff of vapor.” 

Hejinian said the UO Health Center sees roughly 1400-1900 students per year with respiratory complaints, but she can’t confidently attribute those numbers to the use of e-cigarettes when there are other factors at play such as pollen and common colds.

“Many younger users of these devices don’t actually know they contain nicotine, or cause harm,” Clegg-Thorpe said. In fact, 63 percent of youth Juul consumers have no idea that they’re smoking nicotine, according to a study by the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to ending tobacco consumption among young people.

Even for youth who are aware of potential negative health concerns, it's not enough to stop them from doing it. Edwards said he and his friends don't even discuss the adverse side effects. “We don’t have a lot of discourse about it,” he said. “We tend to ignore the hard truths.” 

“Typically, the younger you are, the less concerned you are with situations that put you or your health at risk,” Bear said.  

Although companies like Juul claim on their website that their devices are designed to decrease and even eliminate the use of cigarettes, convenience, enticing flavoring, ease of access and lack of information contribute to the surge in usage among young people.

There is a 21 and over age requirement to purchase tobacco products in Oregon, and the Juul website ships according to state laws. Other states have an 18 and older age requirement. 

“I think no matter the age requirement involved, people will find ways to illegally get the products,” Edwards said.