I took my first puff of an e-cigarette this week, and I can understand the appeal. Filled with a mint-strawberry flavored "juice," the battery-powered vape pen delivered an inhalation that satisfied much like a cigarette.
As a former smoker, I know. But unlike smoking, vaping has no cancer-causing tar, and the nicotine content of the vaping juice is optional. You can buy a vial with 3, 6 or 12 milligrams or more of addictive nicotine -- or zero.
No tar, no nicotine -- what's the harm? Public health officials worldwide praise e-cigs for helping smokers wean themselves from nicotine in a form that's more familiar and satiating than gum or a patch.
But many officials changed their tune when vaping became crazy popular -- with teens. Now, the younger and older generations are stepping a familiar dance. We say, be careful, it could be dangerous. They say, this belongs to us. I'll take this back if vaping is proven harmful, but for now I say it's vital that we give young people an opportunity to define themselves and introduce something new, rather than to automatically shut it down without evidence.
It's easy to overreact when a craze comes on so fast. The use of e-cigs tripled among American teens from 2013 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bringing the number of middle school- and high school-age users up to 2.4 million. Teenagers are smoking less and vaping more.
Vape supply shops have sprung up in Lake Ronkonkoma, Wantagh and Huntington Station. Franklin Square is home to a vaping lounge, capitalizing on another, almost-forgotten pleasure of cigarette smoking: the sociability. Vapers hold contests to blow the largest, widest or densest puff.
But the adult world of "no" is also moving quickly. Public health officials caution that vaping may be a gateway to smoking. It's marketed in kid-pleasing flavors like Kaptin Peanut Butter Crunch, blueberry and Unicorn Puke (a "rainbow of flavors," according to one online vendor). Noting that the juice is unregulated and could contain God-knows-what, adults want to banish it until we feel a sense of control. Several news outlets ran an overblown story in January saying that at very high temperatures, vapor contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen. For a while, the juice was thought to have an ingredient in common with antifreeze -- that's been debunked.
The country of Wales just outlawed vaping in public places that ban tobacco use, including pubs, restaurants and offices. Suffolk County and the state of Nevada banned sales to minors. And the venerable Mayo Clinic advises against vaping until we understand the long-term health effects and dangers from secondhand vapor.
For teenagers, this adult reaction makes vaping all the more delicious.
This is our rite of passage. The Wampanoag tribe sent older boys into the woods alone to fast. Fulani girls in West Africa tattoo their faces when they cross into womanhood. In our society, engaging in something that frightens older generations is one way our children tell us that they're growing up and are making choices for themselves.
I don't think it can be as simple or painless as a child saying to a parent, I'm going to do a few things differently now. The act must topple the miniature mental statue a parent has of the child. It must be boys growing hair past their shoulders or a safety pin piercing the cheek. Something so unthinkable . . . until our kids thought to do it.
Vaping reminds us of evils we rejected, like tobacco. It's alien, so our kids are the experts, can teach us about it and can assuage our fears. It's a necessary role reversal for the people who used to exile monsters from underneath the bed.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.