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When It Comes To Vaping, Health Officials Insist There's A Lot At Stake


Banning flavored vaping products - at least many of them - seemed high on the Trump administration's to-do list a few months ago. But now the effort to ban vaping products seems to have stalled. Public health officials insist there's a lot at stake here and that keeping the vaping products out of the hands of young people is critically important. Back in October, MORNING EDITION brought you this two-part story about youth and vaping. NPR's Jon Hamilton explains what nicotine actually does to the teenage brain. But first, NPR's Allison Aubrey introduces us to a former vaper-turned-activist.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: On the very day that Piper Johnson's family was packing up the car to drive her to college, she started to feel sick, so she mentioned it to her mom.

PIPER JOHNSON: I went up to her, and I was like, my chest kind of hurts.

AUBREY: As they drove from the Chicago area to Colorado, Piper Johnson knew something was terribly wrong.

JOHNSON: I just kept feeling worse and worse.

AUBREY: Piper Johnson had been vaping since high school.

JOHNSON: I was vaping majority nicotine.

AUBREY: She also vaped some THC, but she didn't realize that vaping was making her so sick until she ended up in the ER.

JOHNSON: Oh, I was terrified. I had no idea what was happening to me.

AUBREY: As her oxygen levels plummeted, she was put in the ICU and remembers struggling to breathe.

JOHNSON: Honestly, it was the most painful experience of my entire life. Like, I was laying on my bed, like, sobbing because it hurt so bad to breathe.

AUBREY: She says she's feeling much better now. Not only has she stopped vaping, she can't believe she ever got hooked. And she wants to help other people quit, too. She says vaping is just so out of line with her generation's approach to good living.

JOHNSON: We're really, like, the generation of vegans, organic food - you know, mental health days and self-care days and stuff like that. But we're pumping our bodies full of chemicals without even knowing what it does to us.

AUBREY: And the outbreak of serious lung illnesses has helped to bring this into focus.

JOHNSON: People fail to realize that, like, you're deeply endangering yourself by doing this stuff.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: I'm Jon Hamilton. Vaping is dangerous - and not just for your lungs. Frances Leslie at the University of California, Irvine says the nicotine in vaping products can disrupt a developing brain.

FRANCES LESLIE: It's unfortunate that a whole generation of teenagers are basically guinea pigs for the effects of nicotine in the brain.

HAMILTON: Leslie says the problem with nicotine is that it mimics a substance we already have in our brains, so it can affect learning and memory and brain development. Leslie says nicotine's target is cells that have structures on their surface called nicotinic receptors.

LESLIE: Those parts of the brain that are actively maturing during adolescence are being controlled by nicotinic receptors.

HAMILTON: Nicotine also acts on brain areas involved in addiction. It's still not clear precisely how that affects an adolescent human. But Leslie says in adolescent mice, the result is alarming.

LESLIE: A very brief low-dose exposure to nicotine in early adolescence increases the rewarding properties of other drugs, including alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine. And these are long-term changes.

HAMILTON: Nicotine itself is addictive because it activates the brain's dopamine system. But Dr. Nii Addy at the Yale School of Medicine wondered whether the flavors added to vaping products might also activate this system.

NII ADDY: If both nicotine and flavors are acting on this same dopamine system in the brain, is that somehow facilitating and making it more likely that people will take products that have both flavors and nicotine?

HAMILTON: To find out, Addy and a team of researchers studied rats.

ADDY: What we found is that the sweet flavors can make the nicotine more palatable in the oral cavity but also act in the brain to increase nicotine taking.

HAMILTON: Addy says this finding is especially troubling when it comes to teenagers, whose brains are extra sensitive to rewards. And he says animal research by another Yale scientist suggests that young people who vape may be more likely to develop brain disorders, like ADHD.

ADDY: If there is exposure to nicotine early on, that can influence attentional processes later in life.

HAMILTON: So what might help reduce teen vaping? Janet Audrain-McGovern, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says a ban on flavors like bubblegum and pink lemonade could make a difference.

JANET AUDRAIN-MCGOVERN: If the first e-cigarette that you use was flavored, then you're more likely to go on and use an e-cigarette again.

HAMILTON: Audrain-McGovern also thinks fewer teens might vape if nicotine products were more expensive and harder to buy online.

AUDRAIN-MCGOVERN: I don't think it's that difficult to click the box that you're 18 or you're 21 and, if you have a credit card, to get those products.

HAMILTON: But she says it's going to be hard for regulators and scientists to keep up with all the changes in the vaping world.

AUDRAIN-MCGOVERN: Teens who maybe four years ago were using predominantly vape pens are now using Juul and some of the pod mods.

HAMILTON: Products that can deliver much higher levels of nicotine to their brains.

Jon Hamilton.

AUBREY: Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.