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For the health of Americans, put restrictions on vaping

Daryl Cura demonstrates an e-cigarette at a vape

Daryl Cura demonstrates an e-cigarette at a vape store in Chicago on April 23, 2014.

If tobacco were invented tomorrow and startup cigarette manufacturers advertised that their Marlboros and Camels were safe, there would be no way to disprove it. The cancers, hypertension and respiratory diseases that would destroy thousands of lives would come decades in the future.

It took researchers at least 50 years to understand that cigarettes kill lifetime smokers 10 years earlier than they would otherwise die.

That’s where we are now with e-cigarettes. Manufacturers claim the heated liquid chemicals and nicotine that users inhale are safe, but society has no idea whether that’s true. It will be decades before we know the long-term health effects of these popular products. It is certainly easy to believe vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes, because seemingly anything would be. Cigarettes cause about half of all premature deaths in the United States — more than 480,000 a year.

So vaping chemicals may be a positive move for smokers if it means they can quit cigarettes. But for people who do not already use tobacco and are not addicted to nicotine, vaping is a disastrous habit to acquire. And that’s particularly true for the young people whom producers of e-cigarettes and vaping liquid are sucking in by the millions.

Fruit and candy-flavored vape liquids like “vanilla cookie” and “gummi bear,” banned in cigarettes in 2009 but not e-cigarettes, are designed to attract young people, not cigarette smokers who want a tobacco-flavored crutch to kick the habit. E-cigarette companies have used the same time-tested methods to lure young customers that tobacco companies used: celebrity endorsers, slick advertising that can be sexy or cartoonish, gentler flavors and garish packaging. Now about 4 million American teens vape regularly, and most believe it is harmless.

It’s not. Millions of young people are becoming addicted to nicotine. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young people who vape are far more likely to start smoking cigarettes than those who do not vape. Is it any wonder that Marlboro maker Altria invested $12 billion in e-cigarette leader Juul last year?

Recent illnesses related to vaping that are believed to have caused at least five deaths have brought intense scrutiny to the industry. These incidents appear to stem from smokers using black market liquids with THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. But attention and action are needed anyway.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday that flavored vaping products will be off the market within 30 days, just days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would support legislation to ban them in New York.

A national ban is best. We support raising the vaping age to 21 statewide. On Nov. 13, New York law will prohibit the sale of cigarettes, electronic cigarettes and other tobacco products to anyone younger than 21. The limit is already in place in Nassau and Suffolk counties and New York City. We also need to enforce tough fines on businesses that sell to kids. Most important, we need to make young people understand how incredibly foolish it is to inhale chemicals whose effects we do not understand and which will lead to an addiction many cannot escape. — The editorial board

Editor's note: Information about a specific change in New York law has been added to this editorial. 

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