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Editorial: Keep youth from vaping products

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About a decade ago, when nicotine vaping products came on the market, some people welcomed electronic cigarettes as a potentially safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes. And while many adults have made the switch in an effort to kick the tobacco habit, vaping is now threatening to hook a new generation on potent chemicals.

In December, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams declared e-cig use among youth an “epidemic,” pointing to a national report that found vaping had increased dramatically among high school students between 2017 and 2018, topping 20%. That advisory could not have come as a surprise to health officials in the islands.

Surveys issued by the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) show from 2011 to 2015, vaping experimentation among high schoolers increased four-fold; among middle-school students, six fold. That’s troubling. Then in 2017, the state’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that in public schools, about 1 in 4 high schoolers, and 1 in 6 middle schoolers used e-cigs that year.

Clearly, more needs to be done to discourage vaping among youth. Underscoring this is the DOH announcement this week that it is investigating the state’s first suspected case of severe respiratory illness related to vaping — a Hawaii island youth hospitalized for “serious lung injury.”

The case is among the latest, in recent months, of vaping-related lung illnesses, which now near 500 in nearly three dozen states and have possible links to six deaths. In response to growing alarm about largely unregulated e-cig vaping products, the Trump administration said Wednesday it intends to ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes.

That’s a much-needed move as these chemical solutions — nicotine-infused “e-juices” with names like “Bubble Pop” and “Peanut Butter Cup” — are, no doubt, enticing kids to give vaping a go.

The Food and Drug Administration is now outlining a plan for removing flavored e-cigs and nicotine pods from the market, excluding tobacco flavors. However, the ban would include popular mint and menthol varieties. Hawaii should follow that lead by imposing a state ban on the sale and distribution of flavored tobacco, including e-cig products.

In testimony this year supporting such a bill — which eventually stalled — the DOH rightly questioned whether youth-focused marketing amounts to “a way of replacing adult smokers of traditional cigarettes” as those vaping are “more likely to progress to regular smoking.”

Echoing that concern, this month Michigan became the first state in the nation to ban flavored e-cigs, including both retail and online sales. The ban will last for six months, and can be renewed for another six months. In the meantime, that state’s health department will develop permanent regulations banning flavored e-cigarettes.

It also should be noted that not all vaping involves nicotine. Hawaii’s marijuana dispensaries sell cannabis oil cartridges, which are subject to regulatory scrutiny, so that patients can legally take the drug through vaping. A battery-powered device heats the liquid into a vapor that’s inhaled.

Vaping supporters say e-cigs provide the craved nicotine without the toxic tar and carcinogens linked to inhaling burning tobacco. In Hawaii, supporters also point out that the industry has stepped up efforts to ensure that customers are at least 21 years old, the legal age for both sorts of cigarettes.

Still, regulators have not approved vaping as smoking cessation tool. The current deadline for makers to comply with federal guidelines, which, among other things, require proving that e-cigs are beneficial to public health, is set for 2022. Meanwhile, here, and on the mainland, it’s already apparent that vaping among youth is worse than a frightening fad.

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