In the mid-twentieth century, “cigarette girls” distributed their wares in casinos, office workers puffed away at their desks, and parents lit up while the whole family gathered in the living room to watch TV. Then, in 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General declared cigarettes dangerous. With the public health campaigns that followed, smoking gradually disappeared from American lives. First it vanished from hospitals, then airlines, then sections of restaurants, then entire restaurants, and now from whole swatches of public space. Most of all, and most importantly, from my standpoint as an addiction prevention coordinator, smoking seemed to have vanished from our collective psyche.
A decade ago it seemed, as a country, we were on our way to kicking the addiction to nicotine. “Ew, gross,” my nephews, then elementary schoolers, would say if they caught a whiff of tobacco when we were out in public.
But today, those same nephews are teenagers, and many of their peers have acquired a nicotine addiction through vaping. In fact, according to a Vermont Department of Health report, fully one third of high school students in our state have tried an electronic vapor product.
E-cigarettes, vapes, JUULs: no matter what you call them, the battery powered devices create an aerosol by heating up liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavorings, and other additives. People inhale the aerosol into their lungs and for a few minutes experience a feeling of calm and slight euphoria. Even though they’re often touted as being safer than “traditional” cigarettes because they don’t produce tar, e-cigarettes are highly addictive and can cause long-term harm to respiratory health. And teens are likely to transition from vaping to traditional smoking.
Vaping devices - relatively odorless and smokeless, often no larger than a thumb drive, and sometimes disguised as lipsticks or phones - are so easy to conceal that kids smoke them right in the classroom and teachers have no idea. Vaping fluid comes in flavors such as cotton candy and watermelon. Ads feature young, vibrant models smiling and dancing - while vaping companies deny that they market their products to underage customers.
If they did, they’d create a whole new generation of addicted consumers. And that’s never happened before, has it?