Could your kids be familiar with Sweet Tart, Hawk Sauce and Unicorn Puke? No, they’re not cartoon characters or new energy drinks — they’re just three of the many flavors for electronic cigarettes and vaporizers.
Electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigs,” have been hailed as the ultimate tools in smoking cessation for adults over the past decade, with more than 466 brands out there to choose from. But today they’re also used by a new demographic comprised of tweens and teens.
What’s more, many teens are turning away from tobacco cigarettes in flavor of these new devices. In fact, around 13% of teens in 2014 admit to vaping, compared with just 9% who are still using tobacco cigarettes.
How do e-cigs work? They allow users to “vape,” rather than smoke, with the use of heated “e-liquid,” which consists of a mixture of propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerin plus flavoring and varying amounts of nicotine.
E-cigarette and e-liquid sales are technically illegal to minors in most areas of the United States. But if fewer teens are smoking, that’s a good thing, right?
Health officials and vape users are split in their opinions. Where teens see them as ubiquitous in their high schools, groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention think they may have more negative long-term effects than most young people realize.
Tom, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Westchester County, NY, referred to vaping as “the healthy alternative [to smoking] taking over my school” when speaking to the New York Times. He started vaping to quit smoking and says that around 70% of his friends also vape.
James, a 17-year-old senior in Virginia, started using the devices after his father had discarded them in an attempt to quit smoking. He calls vaping “edgy and exciting,” and says his favorite flavor is “Hawk Sauce,” which tastes like berry and menthol.
Other flavors popular among teens were Sweet Tart and Unicorn Puke, the latter of which reportedly tastes like “every flavor Skittle compressed into one,” according to one teen. But there are another 7,700 vaping flavors for sale to choose from, and there are hundreds of varieties being introduced into the market each month.
But researchers are clamoring to find evidence of whether or not e-cigarettes are considered safe for anyone, kid or adult.
Some scientific evidence finds that the heated e-liquid can cause problems. A paper just published in the journal Tobacco Control calls ingredients like vanillin and benzaldehyde “primary irritants” of the respiratory tract, with a similar effect on breathing in thick smog in Los Angeles.
Those ingredients and others that flavor e-liquid are commonly found in food, but they are used differently for consumption, according to the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. The organization says that e-cig and vaporizer manufacturers shouldn’t suggest that those flavor ingredients are actually safe for use in said devices.
But who has the ultimate say for most consumers? That would be the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
But the FDA is still reviewing all the facts on vaping flavors when it comes to regulating such products. The rules are expected to be complete by June and would ban sales and free samples to minors under 18; the products would also require nicotine addiction warnings on their labels.
Margaret Hamburg, the former FDA Commissioner, said the agency is still reviewing scientific data pertaining to e-liquid flavors.