Kids and Tobacco

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 6/26/2015.

Over the weekend, my kids and I watched a couple of great old science-fiction films from the 1950s.

It was great fun, although one of my boys kept remarking about how much better the movies would have been with color and better special effects. Despite my explaining to him the beauty and artistry of black-and-white movies, the lack of technology to deliver the quality special effects we know today and the fact these guys really knew how to make a great movie, it was moot. I fear those points are largely lost on my millennial, who is growing up in the age of Pixar and an endless supply of actionfilled Hollywood blockbusters.

One other thing we all kept noticing was the constant presence of tobacco use. Nearly all the characters were smoking at some time or other, whether sitting back and relaxing or in a stressful situation. There’s a striking difference between these movies and those of today, in which tobacco products are largely absent thanks to decades of education and research warning of the dangers of tobacco, as well as extensive regulation intended to curb its use.

All that effort has effectively cut down on the use of traditional tobacco products — especially cigarettes — among young people. But a recent study released by federal agencies has raised concerns that while cigarette use is down, teens have migrated to alternatives in record numbers.

The 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey, co-conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, is the “only nationally representative survey of middle and high school students that focuses exclusively on tobacco use.”

Among the findings:

In 2014, one in four high school students and one in 13 middle school students reported being tobacco users (using one or more tobacco products in the previous 30 days). And nearly 2.2 million of those students reported using two or more tobacco products.

Of the then-current 4.6 million youth tobacco users, 2.4 million reported using e-cigarettes.

Between 2011 and 2014, the percentage of students reporting current use of cigarettes decreased from 15.8 percent to 9.2 percent. But that trend was more than countered by a dramatic rise in hookah use (more than doubling) between 2011 and 2014. “One thing the study confirms for us is that the tobacco product landscape has changed dramatically,” said Benjamin J. Apelberg, branch chief of epidemiology at FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “Middle and high school kids are using novel products like e-cigarettes and hookahs in unprecedented numbers, and many are using more than one kind of tobacco product.”

And some alternatives may be worse than cigarettes, containing high concentrations of tar, nicotine and many other toxic compounds. Nicotine in particular is concerning because it has been identified as having a detrimental effect on brain development in young people. Some advocates have warned that hookah pipes, a very old practice that is resurging as a trendy alternative to cigarettes, can deliver much more of the toxic stew than a cigarette — and faster. (A hookah is a water pipe with a smoke chamber, a bowl, a pipe and a hose that uses specially made tobacco. The Mayo Clinic says tobacco is no less toxic in a hookah pipe than in a cigarette.) Because the brain is still developing, Apelberg notes, adolescence appears to be a particularly vulnerable time. Research has clearly demonstrated that exposure to nicotine at a young age increases the chance that kids will become addicted. In addition to nicotine exposure, tobacco use can be harmful due to the numerous other chemicals present in tobacco products that can cause disease. “Youth should not use tobacco in any form,” Apelberg warns.

The use of e-cigarettes (vaping) is also causing concern. The science is still being done on e-cigarettes, which are often marketed as being safer than smoking and even a way to kick the proverbial habit, but regulators have warned there are just too many unknowns to trust these products as a safe alternatives to smoking.

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