It took the recent spate of deaths and severe respiratory illnesses to induce policymakers to get serious about reining in the epidemic of nicotine vaping, which has been escalating among youth over the past few years.
The fact is, many young people who vape nicotine end up vaping marijuana – regardless of whether the lung injuries we’re seeing originate from nicotine, marijuana or the process of vaping itself. Kids who vape THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, are not only at risk of developing severe lung injury but also a host of other health problems associated both with marijuana itself and with the act of vaping. Without getting into the sociopolitical morass of debating the wisdom of marijuana legalization, it would be negligent to restrict our attention to nicotine vaping when considering how best to protect the health and well-being of our nation’s youth.
Four years after we raised the red flag about nicotine vaping, the nation is finally accepting how harmful it is for kids. The public is beginning to understand that the vaping industry has been targeting children through unregulated and youth-oriented advertising and marketing — most strikingly, by an abundance of child-friendly flavors.
Our recent survey shows that 1 in 4 teens say they could access vaping products within a single day, if they so choose. Acknowledging the problem, raising awareness about it and instituting policies to reduce the appeal and accessibility of nicotine vaping products to youth are steps in the right direction.
Marijuana vaping may very well be a health crisis lurking beneath the youth nicotine vaping epidemic. Recent data shows that marijuana vaping among teens is on the rise, and risk is especially high — about 3.5 times higher — among young people who have vaped nicotine.
As is true of nicotine vaping, kids are attracted to the sleek, discreet devices that allow them to vape THC without attracting the attention of adults around them. Like nicotine vape juice, marijuana vaping products come in a broad range of flavors that appeal to kids. Also, as the dose of nicotine in some vape products can exceed that found in cigarettes, the THC dose and potency in a marijuana vape is significantly higher than in combustible marijuana.
It’s also worth noting that, like the nicotine vaping industry that is now backed by Big Tobacco, the marijuana industry is a well-funded behemoth in which the same tobacco industry has a substantial financial interest. Nobody understands better than the tobacco industry the importance of hooking young people to their products to ensure a lifelong-addicted customer.
There is a widespread misperception that marijuana in general, and vaping marijuana in particular, is not especially harmful. This perception is bolstered by the seemingly unstoppable trend of marijuana legalization and the limitless marketing and advertising of marijuana products.
Few dispute the fact, however, that marijuana use is highly risky for youth, both in terms of the mental and physical health effects and the significantly increased risk of becoming addicted, relative to adults who use marijuana.
Although it appears that adulterated THC vaping products are responsible for most of the vaping-related injuries and deaths identified over the past few months, no vaping products or ingredients have been definitively ruled out. So far, federal regulators and health officials are responding to this health scare and to recent reports of staggering increases in youth vaping by proposing public health measures to put a check on the largely unregulated nicotine vaping industry — an industry, unlike marijuana, that they are legally charged with overseeing.
As complicated as it seems to regulate nicotine vaping, the complexities around marijuana regulations can feel even more daunting to tackle. While our nation grapples with whether or how to legalize recreational marijuana use, we must not lose sight of the immediate danger of marijuana vaping among kids and do what we can in the meantime to stop this trend before it damages more young lives.
Parents, schools and communities must recognize that marijuana vaping is a growing problem, not only in terms of the immediate risk of lung injury and death, but also in terms of the many other short- and long-term health risks of youth marijuana use. We must expand the conversations and initiatives we’re now having and implementing with regard to nicotine vaping to also include marijuana. If we don’t take quick and decisive action, our lack of awareness, prevention and treatment around marijuana vaping will surely worsen the current vaping epidemic and further compromise the health and well-being of teens and young adults.
Linda Richter, Ph.D., is the director of policy research and analysis at the Center on Addiction. Creighton Drury, JD, is the chief executive officer at the Center on Addiction.
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