The use of e-cigarettes - or vaping - is skyrocketing in Colorado despite a lack of public information about the ingredients in these products or their effect on people's health. With so little evidence available, consumers should hold off on vaping until more is known.
But people are not holding off. Widespread marketing to young people - and the unproven notion that e-cigarettes are not harmful - has led to increasing sales. More young people are now vaping than smoking.
According to the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, cigarette smoking among high school students reached an all-time low of 8.6 percent, while e-cigarette use climbed to 26 percent. The proportion of adults in Colorado who have ever used e-cigarettes tripled from 6.9 percent to 22.8 percent from 2012 to 2015 while adult smoking rates held steady at around 17 percent, according to state health department data.
Look around. By now, most of us have seen people vaping. They inhale the vapor from a small electronic device that uses an atomizer to heat a liquid containing nicotine, flavoring and other chemicals. You see people exhaling this atomized chemical plume into the air and potentially into the lungs of those around them.
Yet because the Food and Drug Administration has only just begun regulating these devices, only the manufacturer knows for sure what's in them.
Evidence shows e-cigarette aerosol may contain heavy metals, particulates and chemicals known to cause cancer. Despite there being nearly 450 different types of vaping devices, there are no recognized standards on product design, ingredients or safety.
While we don't know all the ingredients in e-cigarettes, we know they contain nicotine, one of the most addictive drugs available. Even some products marketed as having no nicotine contain trace amounts, according to random sampling by an independent laboratory. Exposure to nicotine during adolescence negatively affects brain development and has been associated with lasting cognitive and behavioral impairments, including decreased memory and attention, according to the surgeon general.
What's more, research shows vaping is a predictor of future smoking among youth. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that students who reported recent vaping in a baseline survey were nearly five times more likely to report smoking cigarettes a year later. We know most adults who smoke started young. Let's not let vaping addict another generation.
Young people may be swayed by targeted marketing, peer pressure and lack of information. Adults who vape report doing so for a variety of reasons. For some, it's a ritual much like smoking. Others vape to save money, cut back on cigarettes or to try to quit smoking for good.
We applaud efforts to quit smoking, but no health department in the United States endorses vaping as an effective way to quit.
Instead, we recommend those who are ready to quit smoking contact the Colorado QuitLine at 800-QUIT-NOW where they can talk to trained stop-smoking coaches and receive stop-smoking medication if they're eligible - all for free.
It would be unwise to interpret a lack of research as proof that vaping is safe. It's your choice to try these products, but it's our responsibility to provide facts people can use to make informed decisions.
Dr. Larry Wolk is executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.