Letters from Maine

The vaping problem


The first time I was sure I was witnessing someone vaping occurred when I saw an alarming cloud of smoke billowing from driver’s side window of the car in front of me. My initial concern was that vehicle was on fire. But none of the other drivers around me seemed concerned and as I pulled up next to the car I could see the driver ostentatiously inhaling deeply in preparation for releasing another monstrous cloud of vapor.

However, you probably have learned, as have I, that most vaping is done furtively. In fact, the pocketability of vaping devices is part of their appeal to teenagers. Hiding a lit cigarette in one’s pocket is something even the most risk-loving adolescent usually won’t attempt. I suspect that regardless of what is in the vapor, the high one can get by putting one over on the school administration by vaping in the school restroom or in the middle of history class is a temptation that many teenagers can’t resist.

Listening to educators, substance abuse counselors, and police officers who have first hand knowledge, it’s clear that vaping is an activity that’s very difficult to detect and police. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, but if it’s just a vapor it is easy to hide.

Part of the problem seems to be that vaping was flying under the radar and expanding rapidly long before educators, parents, and I fear physicians woke up to the severity and magnitude of the problem. And now everybody is playing catchup.

Of course the initial, and as yet unconfirmed, notion that e-cigarettes might provide a viable strategy for tobacco withdrawal has added confusion to the mix. It turns out that vaping can provide many orders of magnitude more nicotine in a small volume than cigarettes, which creates an outsized addiction potential for those more vulnerable users – even with a very short history of use. My experts tell me that this level of addiction has forced them to consider strategies and dosages far beyond those they are accustomed to using with patients whose addiction stems from standard cigarette use.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

The recent discovery of lung damage related to vaping provided a brief glimmer of hope that fear would turn the tide in the vaping epidemic. But unfortunately the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did its job too well. Although maybe it was a bit late to uncover the condition, the agency acted quickly to chase down the epidemiology and eventually the chemical responsible for the pulmonary injury. My local experts tell me that, while the cause of the lung damage was still a mystery, they noticed a decline in vaping generated by the fear of this unknown killer. Young people were reporting that they were rethinking their vaping usage. However, once the chemical culprit was identified, their clients felt that they could safely vape again as long as they were more careful in choosing the source of liquid in their devices.

Not surprisingly, the current administration has been providing mixed messages about how it will address vaping. There always will be the argument that if you ban a substance, it will be driven underground and become more difficult to manage. However, in the case of vaping, its appeal and risk to young people and the apparent ineffectiveness of local efforts to control it demand a firm unwavering response at the federal level.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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