Community Columns

Youth e-cigarette epidemic must be addressed, Modesto teen says

By Rana Banankhah

Nearly 100 years ago, millions of Americans became friends with one of the world’s deadliest killers: the cigarette. This boom would haunt millions for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, in recent years, cigarette consumption has slowly declined. However, this downturn was simultaneously accompanied by a rise in electronic cigarette usage. The worst part is that a striking majority of users are teenagers.

According to the Center for Disease Control, teenage use of e-cigarettes spiked a shocking 80% to 3.6 million teens in 2018 alone. The company which boasts 73% of the e-cigarette market, JUUL, is a teen favorite. Once these teens try JUUL, they instantly become addicted because of JUUL’s extraordinarily high nicotine content. It is estimated that just one JUUL pod has a nicotine content equivalent to 20 cigarettes. Not only is nicotine highly addictive, but it also is well known to be harmful to the human body. Numerous studies have established that nicotine malignantly affects the cardiovascular system, reproductive system, lungs and kidneys.

If we already understand how harmful nicotine truly is, why does a product which simply delivers nicotine in a different fashion slide under regulations? While it is illegal for minors to purchase e-cigarettes, many teens still are able to obtain them; 74% said they simply purchased their JUUL at a retail location, such as a convenience store. I find it appalling that it is so easy and simple for teens to illegally buy JUULs and other e-cigarettes.

These e-cigarette companies firmly stand behind claims that their products’ intent is to aid smokers to quit smoking tobacco, but statistics tell an entirely different story. In fact, a Truth Initiative study discovered that 15- to 17-year-olds are 16 times as likely to use JUUL than those from 25 to 34. Furthermore, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse for Teens, 30.7% of e-cigarette users started smoking real cigarettes within six months.

Given how dangerous these products are, we must take initiative to regulate the sale and consumption of e-cigarettes with minors. To begin, we can enforce strict penalties for stores that sell e-cigarettes to underage teens. Many stores are simply doing so for monetary profit while disregarding their health. This is because the benefits, for them, outweigh the risks, as the penalty for such crimes is only a few hundred dollars. The least we can do to combat this issue is to enforce stricter punishments to dissuade illegal sales. We can also require mandatory training about e-cigarette sales to all store clerks.

Next, we can limit the sale of flavored products which directly appeal to children, as this is one way that companies attract teens. Finally, we must inform teenagers about the dangers of e-cigarettes. According to the Truth Initiative, 63% of JUUL users didn’t know that JUUL contains nicotine. And many more simply are not educated on the effects nicotine can have on their bodies. Local organizations in Stanislaus County, such as PHAST (Protecting Health and Slamming Tobacco), are working to help inform teens in our area about the dangers of e-cigarettes. To send a message to millions, we must actively spread the truth and take advantage of platforms such as social media to make a greater impact.

I find it difficult to sit by and watch as my peers and others become addicted to electronic cigarettes. Children with their entire lives ahead of them have their future in jeopardy due to carelessness, a lack of effort, and those who become rich off of their suffering. We must put the best interests of our children above all and work together to end the e-cigarette epidemic in our youth.

Rana Banankhah just finished her freshman year at Modesto High School. She wrote this commentary for The Modesto Bee.