KAMLOOPS — We live close to one of the public high schools, which means that on any given day during lunch break, there is a stream of teens walking in front of our house, many of them shrouded in white billows of steam. If you walk past them, there are various (fruity or not) flavours hitting your nose. There is also a consistent group of students who congregate in the back lane to dedicate some of their lunch break to vaping.
Though the selling of vaping products, at least of those containing nicotine, to people under the age of 19 is not allowed in Canada, our young ones are nonetheless using them, selling vaping devices or components, to other teens, and they do so openly. The cat is out of the bag.
This is a contentious topic for sure. There are strong and polarized opinions, as most people already know. While we can all agree that the reasoning behind the invention of the gadget by a Chinese chemist named Hon Lik in 2000 was a positive one, the present-day state of affairs bears a close inspection.
Having witnessed his father’s deadly addiction to cigarettes, Hon Lik designed the device to help people kick the smoking habit. Yet in the 18 years since the invention of these devices, there are a few ethical, social, and health ramifications that we ought to consider, so that we will not be taken by surprise (or immense guilt) years from now when more research might point to undesirable effects.
My argument in this column revolves around children and teenagers, and their increased use of vaping devices. Some users are as young as grade 8; that, without a doubt is reason to wonder about safety and the ethics of it.
What we know so far is that the e-liquids used in vaping devices contains many substances, some listed as what they are, while others are either not listed or listed as ‘flavouring/aroma agents’. The vaping devices (e-cigarette and other contraptions, some of which can be modified if one so desires) are battery-operated; they deliver a steam by having the e-liquid - a mixture of water, glycerol, propylene glycol and ethylene glycol, flavorings and aroma agents, and nicotine in varying concentrations if one wishes, come into contact with a metal heating element. The user breathes the vapours in and releases the above-mentioned clouds of white that are slowly becoming a trademark of teenage-hood.
Some have concluded we have nothing to fear when it comes to vaping. After all, compared to cigarette smoking and the myriad toxins tobacco smoke contains, which is deleterious to smokers and second-hand smokers, vaping poses much lesser risk. The last part is a dangerous statement, no matter what it is made about. I will explain.
The effects of certain toxic chemicals have on human health. We may be tempted to think that the higher the amount or time of exposure, the more drastic the effects. While a threshold of such nature exists in many cases, there is a growing body of research pointing to the opposite: certain chemicals known as toxic can have deleterious effects even when present in very low concentrations. Counterintuitive as this may be, it is something to consider when we think of vaping.
Some of the chemicals present in the steam, such as formaldehyde, and heavy metals, for example, albeit in small amounts, may be of lesser effect on the adult body, but when it comes to the developing body of young people, brain included, we have the moral obligation to look twice.
Also, some of the e-liquids have been found to contain chemicals that are known to cause irreparable lung damage like diacetyl. If present in small amounts, should we even worry? It is not about worrying though and fear-mongering. The issue is multi-faceted. Some of such chemicals are not explicitly listed by manufacturers (we are still awaiting Canadian regulatory bodies to decide on the issue.) That the e-liquids young people use are flavoured is not helping. Strawberry, watermelon, chocolate, cherry, peach, whatever suits one’s fancy. Aside from teenagers following trends, the appeal of the candy smells increases the allure of the vaping devices many times over. Hence the critics asking that they are removed. That’s one way to somewhat level the field.
As for the counter-argument that vaping is preferable to smoking, drug or alcohol consumption, there is no question that a lesser evil is preferable to a greater one. In fact, one Canadian study concluded that teenagers who vape are more prone to picking up smoking. In the end though, it is not about choosing what harms less, more so when we do not have enough long-term studies to back that up. To accept vaping as here to stay before understanding its effects on our young population is risky, and I am willing to say that the risks are not worth it. Not when we do not fully understand how pervasive and long-lasting the effects.