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Minnesota youth smoke less, vape more

A new survey of teenagers' nicotine-related behavior conducted by the state of Minnesota indicates that they are vaping more and smoking less. One expects that there will soon be a study out of the University of California at San Francisco and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, crunching the numbers in some tortured way that makes this seem to prove that vaping is inducing them to smoke cigarettes. Meanwhile, those of us who interpret statistics in a more commonsensical way may be inclined to suspect that the youngsters are starting to show a preference for e-cigs over the poison ones.

This is not cause for untrammeled rejoicing. Nicotine is bad for youngsters. All nicotine. So the sooner the FDA gets off its keester and bans sale of e-cigs to minors, nationwide, the better. Scientists tell us that the kids' synapses are still reproducing like bunnies, and a nicotine buzz somehow gets in the way of that. So there is good reason to ban all nicotine sales to adolescents.

That said, the state's survey results do give grounds for some encouragement. Trammeled rejoicing, let's say. For a variety of reasons. The most obvious one is what harm reductionists have been saying all along – that vaping is so much less dangerous than smoking that it does represent an improvement. There is almost no likelihood that vaping will give the little tykes cancer, heart disease, or COPD. To be sure, there has not yet been time to conduct studies showing long-term effects of vaping, but virtually everyone who looks at the issue with an open mind agrees that the short term effects appear to be orders of magnitude less harmful. Likewise the bystander effects. For teens, it is mainly the nicotine that we need to be concerned about.

Regarding nicotine, there is another reason to prefer vaping teens to smoking ones. Scientists at the Schroeder Institute have recently explained that vaping and smoking get nicotine into the bloodstream in different ways. For smoking, it happens through something called "alveolar deposition". Alveoli are the teensy structures in your lungs that convert breath into blood, and when that breath includes cigarette smoke, darned if those little buggers don't depose its nicotine with an extra powerful zap. The nicotine from e-cig vapor gets into your blood through absorption, because it's a "humectant". It has even been suggested that mad scientists in Winston-Salem are furiously working on a method of getting nicotine-infused vapor to engage in alveolar deposition. But for the time being e-cig vapor, even the stuff in Blus and MarkTens, remains a humectant.

Another finding of the Minnesota study that has both a bright side and a dark one is the fact that a significant percentage of the state's new youth vapers had not smoked before trying an e-cigarette. The downside of this is that there is universal agreement among harm reductionists that vaping is for smokers and ex-smokers, that it should not be presented as an option to "never-smokers". In the context of the debate so far, the uptake of vaping by non-smokers would have to be seen as a negative.

On the other hand, if e-cigarettes appeal to Minnesota teenagers as "cool" in their own right, regardless of a history of smoking behavior, this would seem to reduce the likelihood of a gateway effect. If vaping is cooler than smoking, why would a young person vape first and then go on to smoke later?

Along the same lines, it is a well established fact that many vapers make a conscious attempt to reduce their nicotine concentration. Indeed, crowing about your success in reducing your nicotine levels is a part of vaping culture. If teens in the Land-o-Lakes are eager to take up a nicotine delivery system that has variable and diminishing levels of nicotine, and if reducing your levels is viewed as cool in the surrounding culture, this could be a modest improvement. Especially if the coolness of vaping is clearly overtaking the outmoded former coolness of cigarettes.

"Smoking is soooooo 2013!"