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Editorial: Evidence mounting that smoking age should be raised

E-cigarettes were supposed to be an alternative to tobacco, a means to help people stop smoking. But any benefits have been eclipsed by nationwide concern over the negative effects of “vaping” on young people.

That concern has been compounded by new developments in Wisconsin and Illinois that have prompted warnings from the Indiana State Department of Health.

Wisconsin health officials have confirmed 12 cases of vaping-related lung disease among teens and young adults, and 13 other cases are under investigation. Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Health says it has received reports of six young people experiencing breathing problems after vaping and is investigating five more cases.

Those patients reported using e-cigarettes prior to their illnesses. They experienced symptoms that included shortness of breath, fatigue and chest pain, and some became so ill they needed mechanical ventilation.

Although no cases have been reported in Indiana, health department officials sent an advisory last week to state hospitals, health care providers and the Allen County Board of Health, asking them to report “as soon as possible” any young patients with a history of vaping who unexpectedly developed severe respiratory illnesses.

The cases in Wisconsin and Illinois include those who vaped marijuana oils, extracts and concentrates.

Dr. Susan Walley, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told healthline.com those cases are “very concerning” because similar problems could develop in others among the growing number of youth whom are vaping.”

Between 2017 and 2018, e-cigarette use increased from 11.7 percent to 20.8 percent among high school students, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

A 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found, according to healthline.com, “There is conclusive evidence that in addition to nicotine, most e-cigarette products contain and emit numerous potentially toxic substances.”

The evidence is building in support of efforts to prevent youth from use of products containing nicotine. The Allen County Board of Health, citing CDC warnings, says e-cigarette devices typically contain nicotine, flavorings and other additives that users inhale through the device.

While e-cigarettes have the potential to benefit adult smokers who are not pregnant if used as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products, the CDC says, “They are not safe for youth, young adults, pregnant women, or adults who do not currently use tobacco products.”

Since the rise of such vaping products as the Juul, e-cigarettes are now the most commonly used form of tobacco by youth in the U.S, according to the CDC. It describes Juul as a brand of e-cigarette that has “skyrocketed in popularity” among U.S. teens and says educators report “an alarming level of Juul use in middle and high schools.”

Research has shown nicotine exposure during adolescence can cause addiction and can harm the developing brain.

After the Indiana Legislature failed to raise the smoking age to 21 during this year’s session, Republican Sen. Todd Young joined forces with a bipartisan group of senators in Washington to propose a bill — the Tobacco to 21 Act — that would raise the federal minimum age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and cigars, to 21. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) introduced a similar bill in the House.

While scientists are still learning more about how e-cigarettes can affect a person’s overall health, there’s already enough evidence, according to the CDC, to justify efforts to prevent e-cigarette use. We support those efforts and implementation of the Tobacco to 21 Act.

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