Rarely has a public-health program been so aptly named. Last week, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced a state campaign to discourage young people from smoking cigarettes or using vaping devices. It’s called “What’s Beyond the Haze.”
The phrase has special relevance in regard to vaping, which has become as much as nine times more popular among Indiana teens during the last couple of years. In many cases, vapers literally don’t know what it is they are smoking. That disturbing reality has come into sharp focus in recent weeks as emergency rooms across the country have dealt with cases of mysterious lung infections that appear to be linked to vaping, including one death in Illinois. State health officials told The Indianapolis Star there have been at least 24 victims in Indiana, most of them aged 16 to 29. Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan said Tuesday her department has not been notified of any suspected cases locally.
THOUGH MANY OF THOSE affected have told health officials they were vaping marijuana products, that may or may not be the whole story. “Nobody quite knows whether people were vaping nicotine or THC” or something else, said Nancy Cripe, executive director of Tobacco Free Allen County, who recently returned from a national convention of anti-smoking advocates where the vaping illnesses were a major topic of discussion. “It certainly gives lie to the idea that vaping is consistently safe.”
Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is slowly tightening regulations in the industry, “no one has actually asked (makers and distributors) to prove the product is safe,” Cripe said. In addition to nicotine, over-the-counter vaping liquids may contain natural oils, flavoring chemicals and propylene glycol, a petroleum byproduct that is considered safe as a food additive. Little is known, though, about whether propylene glycol is safe as an additive for inhalants. It’s possible contaminants in either e-liquids or e-cigarette devices have also played a role in some of the recent illnesses, which some have termed “chemical pneumonia.”
Nicotine still warrants the deepest concern. As long-term cigarette smokers can attest, nicotine is a powerfully addictive substance, and health advocates fear that young people who start vaping will eventually move on to cigarettes, which already kill thousands of Hoosiers annually and weigh heavily on the state’s economy. Efforts to raise the tax on cigarettes and vaping products and to raise the age limit for purchasing tobacco products were brushed away by the Indiana legislature last session.
BUT OTHER OFFICIALS are finding the gumption to fight back. A bill cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, would require purchasers of cigarettes and nicotine-laced vaping products to be at least 21 years old. Federal regulation is a better solution than state-by-state regulations. As Young points out, teens in a state that outlaws sales to them could easily obtain cigarettes or vaping materials in adjoining states.
The governor’s new anti-smoking and anti-vaping campaign includes a $2.1 million social media awareness campaign, informational support for educators and parents, and links to a program created by the nonprofit Truth Initiative to offer young people encouragement to quit.
As health officials searched for answers to the recent spate of vaping-related illnesses, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned users not to purchase-cigarette products on the street. Regardless of the outcome of the current investigations, the agency said, “E-cigarette products should not be used by youth, young adults, pregnant women, as well as adults who do not currently use tobacco products.”
Warn your children. Warn your friends.
The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette