The never-ending parade of harmful substances that seem to attract teens has marched into new territory. Electronic cigarettes are being used by children in alarmingly increasing numbers, and it's something their parents may know little about and the government has failed to address.
The cigarettes, also called e-cigs, use batteries to heat liquid nicotine, turning it into a vapor that users inhale. Because nicotine is so addictive, e-cigs have the potential to draw teens toward conventional cigarettes. And since their sale to minors won't be banned in Illinois until January, e-cigs are not difficult for them to obtain. Their use is even easier to hide, as they emit little odor and there's no simple test for their use.
That presents a challenge for parents, who may rely on clothing that smells of cigarettes or marijuana or other signs to detect potential substance abuse by their children. But the possibility cannot be ignored. A study released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that among middle and high school students, use of e-cigarettes doubled between 2011 and 2012, bringing the number of students nationwide who have tried them to 1.78 million. Since one in five middle school students who used them said they had never smoked regular cigarettes before, e-cigs could easily become a gateway to smoking, the researchers say.
As if the nicotine isn't enough to hook them, the marketing makes e-cigs attractive to teens. TV and Internet ads use cartoons and celebrity endorsements to get attention, giving e-cigs a glamorous, cool or rebellious look. They also come in kid-friendly flavors like chocolate, cherry and bubble gum. It's heady stuff for an adolescent.
We must be vigilant in keeping youth from using any tobacco product. Some manufacturers have touted "vaping" as a safer alternative to smoking, even a way kick the habit. That claim is being debated among scientists, and a U.S. District Court has ruled against advertising them that way. Even if the research, which still is developing, shows them to be safer than smoking for adults trying to quit, e-cigs by any measure are not safe for teenagers.
Since they remain largely unregulated by the federal government, e-cigs are accessible to teens in about 30 states that have not banned their sale to children. Last spring, Illinois lawmakers wisely set the age requirement at 18, and Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill in August.
But that's not enough. In September, a letter signed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and 39 of her peers asked the Food and Drug Administration to regulate electronic cigarettes as tobacco products, which would lead to federal age restrictions and create rules for advertising. We support that action. Why reverse years of gains against substances toxic to teens? Do we want to go back to the days before TV commercials for cigarettes were banned in the 1970s?
While these questions are sorted out, it's up to parents discuss with their children the dangers of electronic cigarettes and the harmful effects of nicotine. Ninety percent of today's smokers started the habit in their teens. We all must do what we can to prevent a new generation of addicts.