Not long ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ran alarming news about the outbreak of lung injuries associated with vaping. It confirmed in 2020 that at least 68 people who used e-cigarettes, both legally and illegally, had died. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, electric cigarettes are bad for your heart and lungs and just as addictive as traditional cigarettes. Yet last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the first time authorized the sale of electronic tobacco-flavored cigarettes. What is most shocking is that the government is allowing this to happen during a pandemic in which smokers and vapers may be at higher risk for getting severe coronavirus disease.
The government is allowing this to happen during a pandemic in which smokers and vapers may be at higher risk for getting severe coronavirus disease.
Even the website of the approved product, R.J. Reynolds’ Vuse, which offers “7 Bold Colors, 3 Premium Flavors, 3 Nicotine Levels” along with sleek accessories like pretty “racing wraps” and holsters, says on top: “WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.” But the FDA claimed that with vaping, “the potential benefit to smokers who switch completely or significantly reduce their cigarette use, would outweigh the risk to youth.” Apparently the argument is: It’s OK if young people get addicted to vaping nicotine because they will now be able to buy e-cigarettes to later quit.
The FDA has spent years considering different regulatory measures concerning what kind of e-cigarettes could legally be sold in the U.S., ostensibly to minimize the risks associated with them. But the approval given to certain Vuse products last week wrongly perpetuates the illusion that e-cigarettes aren’t dangerous and pretends there is something good about a smoking product already proven to be deadly.
The use of vaping to stem nicotine addiction is completely wrongheaded. Studies have shown clearly that e-cigarettes only encourage teenagers to get hooked to nicotine in the first place. Indeed, the U.S. surgeon general reported that e-cigarette use among high school students increased by 900 percent from 2011 to 2015, and the CDC found in 2020 that 19.6 percent of high school students and 4.7 percent of middle school students had admitted to e-cigarette use. The FDA’s recent approval will inevitably lead to more nicotine addiction.
Even if vaping is a little less deadly than smoking traditional cigarettes, it’s still harmful. And once you’re sucked in, you can suffer a lifetime of horrible consequences.
I know personally the perils of nicotine addiction. As a 13-year-old who wore dark eyeliner and quoted Sylvia Plath, I used to steal my father’s unfiltered Chesterfields. Soon I was buying my own packs and puffing Virginia Slims Menthol Lights. The cancer sticks seemed cool and glamorous, curbed my appetite and eased my social anxiety. Little did I know that I’d become a two-pack-a-day chain smoker for 27 years.
I tried quitting cold turkey several times, then with hypnosis, then through Nicotine Anonymous — all to no avail. The withdrawal symptoms were so extreme I couldn’t get through one day without my fix. Finally, at age 41, when my hourly cigarette dependency was ruining my health, my voice and my marriage, my husband pushed me to stop it once and for all. Even with his support, I needed intense yearlong therapy with an addiction specialist who’d quit a 20-year habit himself.
The more vaping is normalized and e-cigarettes are available, the harder that avoidance will be for those who want to quit.
We used an all-out assault: weekly talk therapy, behavioral changes (like exercising or journaling when I needed a cigarette) and a nicotine patch, which I used for six months to tamp down my cravings. The patch was the only safe cessation product I found that worked — everything else still made me want a cigarette because my lips were sucking nicotine into my lungs in a way that mirrored my fierce dependency. My father quit cold turkey around the same time I did, and though it was pre-vaping, I’m confident neither of us would have been able to quit by using e-cigarettes since they simulate the same sensations as smoking.
I hated seeing people around me lighting cigarettes. It was much easier for me to stop myself when I avoided colleagues who smoked and found fewer people puffing in restaurants, parks and bars. The more vaping is normalized and e-cigarettes are available, the harder that avoidance will be for those who want to quit.
It’s bizarre that the FDA approval of an e-cigarette happened just as Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the addictive OxyContin, has to pay a potential $10 billion in a settlement connected to the opioid epidemic. E-cigarettes are even more accessible than pain pills because you don’t need a prescription to get them, and they are sold at every corner store and local bodega. While you’re supposed to be 21 to legally buy vaping products, students of mine as young as 17 have told me they had no trouble either purchasing them themselves or getting someone to do it for them.
It’s been 20 years since I stopped smoking, and my life has been better in every way. As my addiction specialist promised, “When you give up a toxic habit, you leave room for something beautiful to take its place.” Electronic cigarettes are the toxic habit. Don’t let the tobacco industry or the FDA convince you they are the cure.