LINDEN, N.J. — Parents and teachers must be aware of marketing campaigns by companies selling vaping products if they want to keep their children and students from picking up the e-cigarette habit, according to a social worker at a community meeting in the Wilson Pond Building on Oct. 28.
Sean Foley, the assistant director of community prevention at Prevention Links, a Roselle-based nonprofit organization that seeks to “eliminate the deleterious effects of drugs and alcohol,” told the gathering that while vaping companies do not claim their products are good, they use other marketing ploys that work on young people.
“If you market it in a manner that makes you feel that you may be left out, then kids are going to be more prone to utilize this substance,” Foley said. “And so marketing and advertisements are all based and designed to make you feel like you need something you don’t need, and they make you feel bad you don’t have it.”
The desire that youth have to fit in is rooted in the survival tendencies of the hunter-gatherer society, in which someone who was expelled from a group, or did not fit in, might not survive, he said. And social media algorithms play a huge part in the businesses’ advertising; vape companies employ targeted advertising through several social media platforms, in addition to billboards and magazines. For example, online celebrity photos featuring vape products are advertisements without explicitly saying so.
“They do it in a manner that hides the fact that it’s an advertisement,” Foley said.
Originally introduced in 2007 as an alternative to conventional cigarettes, vapes, or e-cigarettes, are devices that turn water infused with flavorings — and often nicotine or other chemicals — into a vapor that is inhaled. The flavorings often duplicate sweet tastes, such as candy, which Foley said is intended to get youth addicted to vaping.
The U.S. Surgeon General’s website warns against vaping, stating that the flavorings often contain diacetyl, a chemical linked to serious lung disease and volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin and lead. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the devices can also be used to deliver marijuana and other drugs. The Harvard Medical School’s website says its not clear if inhaling heated water vapor can cause lung damage and other problems.
While Foley said at the meeting that although the products are often promoted as a healthy alternative to cigarette smoking, health officials dispute that claim. The solution, he said, is to just keep discussing the dangers of vaping with teens.
“The median lead concentration in aerosols, for example, was about 25 times greater than the median level in the refill dispensers,” Foley said. “Researchers also detected a metal-like element that can be highly toxic. Levels of these metals varied greatly from sample-to-sample, and often were much higher than safe limits.”
Vaping surpassed cigarette smoking in 2014, and Foley said more teenagers today are using e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes. In 2014, he said, tobacco companies spent $115 million on e-cigarette advertising and the rate of middle school and high school students who vape tripled in one year. About 5 percent of middle school students and 21 percent of high school students currently use e-cigarettes, he said.
Foley also disputed claims of vaping as a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, stating that there is no research evidence that vaping products are an effective smoking-cessation tool.
“The view at this time is simply just false,” he said. “There is a better chance for them to go back to smoking cigarettes.”
There are risks beyond inhaling nicotine, heavy metals or THC, Foley said.
“We also know that it has a potential risk for heart disease, asthma attacks, poisoning by these liquids, cases of batteries exploding in people’s pockets and popcorn lung,” he said, referring to a type of bronchitis named after a chemical used in both popcorn flavoring and vape oil, and which causes coughing and shortness of breath.
Teens and young people commonly report stress reduction as a reason for vaping. Vape pods can contain up to the equivalent of 20 cigarettes in nicotine levels, Foley said, and vaping creates cravings and withdrawal symptoms that can lower a person’s emotional baseline. “Some of those symptoms are with stress itself, and the anxiety gets worse” from vaping, he said.
When asked by an audience member about the highly publicized deaths recently attributed to black market e-cigarettes, including one in New Jersey announced by the state Department of Health last month, Foley discounted those reports. He said legitimate vape product companies are pushing a false narrative and placing blame elsewhere to avoid accountability and present themselves as a safe alternative.
“That’s just another one of their lies,” he said.