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E-Cig Stigma: California Declares Vaping a Public Health Risk

Image: Image: A customer puffs on an e-cigarette at the Henley Vaporium in New York City

A customer puffs on an e-cigarette in New York City. MIKE SEGAR / Reuters

E-cigarettes represent a rising public-health risk that threaten to unravel progress made on tobacco by "re-normalizing smoking behavior" and luring a new generation into nicotine addiction, California health officials said Wednesday.

Based on the "toxic" chemicals inhaled — and exhaled — by e-cig users as well as recent spikes in teen vaping rates and the numbers of kids poisoned by e-liquids, California health officials issued a public health advisory, urging the state's residents to avoid or stop using e-cigs.

"As we have done with other important outbreaks or epidemics, we are taking this formal step of warning Californians about the health risks of e-cigarettes," said Dr. Ron Chapman, State Health Officer and director of the California Department of Public Health.

E-cigs, also called "vape pens" and "e-hookahs," contain a liquid solution, commonly called "e-juice," which when heated emits "a toxic aerosol, not a harmless water vapor," Chapman said.

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Those e-juices and the aerosol they emit have been found to contain at least 10 chemicals on California's official list of carcinogens, including benzene, a component of gasoline, formaldehyde, lead and nickel, Chapman said. The solutions also are laced with nicotine, the addictive substance that hooks people to cigarettes.

"There are myths and misinformation about e-cigarettes and many people do not know that they pose many of the same health risks as traditional cigarettes and other tobacco products," Chapman said. "The public needs more facts, not more fiction."

Some of that misinformation, Chapman asserted, includes commonly repeated statements that users are breathing in harmless water vapor and that e-cigs will help tobacco smokers quit.

"There's a growing amount of research that confirms that e-cigarettes are not safe and pose serious health risks for users, (to) those exposed second hand to the e-cigarette aerosol — and even (to) those who are merely within reach of e-liquid."

The bottles and and cartridges that contain the liquid for e-cigs have been known to leak and tend not to be equipped with child-resistant caps, creating a potential source of poisoning through ingestion or just through skin contact, according to the advisory.

The number of calls made to California's poison-control centers involving vaping exposures to children increased from seven in 2012 to 154 in 2014, the state reported.

In addition, "e-cigarette use is escalating among teens and young adults" in many states, Chapman added.

The Monitoring the Future survey, which tracks substance-abuse trends among more 40,000 U.S. minors, found the use of e-cigs among teens has now surpassed the use of traditional cigarettes. In fact, more than twice as many 8th and 10th graders reported in the survey using e-cigarettes instead traditional cigarettes.

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