It has been drilled into my head in health classes ever since elementary school to stay away from cigarettes. From a young age I have believed that cigarettes are essentially a form of suicide because someone who smokes is consciously partaking in something that has such a high mortality rate. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it is difficult for me to understand how someone can regularly smoke cigarettes while being aware of the fact that it kills so many people. Our grandparents may have had the excuse of not understanding cigarettes’ detrimental health effects, but anyone who was born after around 1960 can no longer claim ignorance.
It was on Jan. 11, 1964 that then Surgeon General of the United States Luther Terry released the report titled: “Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service.” This report, once and for all, dispelled ambiguities about the safety of smoking cigarettes and serves as the first federal link between smoking and disease.
Cigarettes are the number one cause of preventable death worldwide, which is why I find it so unfathomable that so many people continue smoking. There are other ailments that cause more deaths each year, such as certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease, but their victims do not actively contribute to these inflictions like smoking does for complications like lung and throat cancer. The Center for Disease Control has stated numerous shocking facts on its “Smoking and Tobacco Use Fast Facts” page, such as, “On average, cigarette smokers die ten years earlier than nonsmokers,” “More than 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking” and “Current trends show that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually 2030.” (“Surgeon General’s Reports on Smoking and Tobacco Use“)
Despite these appalling statistics, about 17.8 percent of American adults smoke cigarettes. Because the dangers of smoking cigarettes are so widely advertised and backed up by concrete evidence, I was genuinely surprised when I began my freshman year at Vassar and saw so many students on campus smoking cigarettes. Cigarette smokers pose a health risk to not just themselves, but the people around them from their secondhand smoke. This smoke increases the risk of cancer, respiratory infection and other ailments.
On the whole, however, cigarette use is declining amongst young adults, down from 16 percent of high school students in 2011 to just 9 percent in 2014. Unfortunately, this is paired with the fact that e-cigarette use for middle school and high school students has tripled between 2013 and 2014. Now 13 percent of students use e-cigarettes, a higher rate than those who smoke regular cigarettes. These statistics lead to the belief that teenagers are giving up cigarettes in favor of e-cigarettes. (The New York Times, “Use of E-Cigarettes Rises Sharply Among Teenagers, Report Says,” 4.16.15)
E-cigarettes are still a fairly new technology, so their effects on one’s health have not been fully unveiled. The apparent advantage of e-cigarettes is that they provide a smoker with the nicotine they are seeking without many of the harmful ingredients that are present in typical cigarettes, such as tar and other chemicals. Regardless, e-cigarette smokers are still coming into contact with the addictive substance nicotine.
The health effects of e-cigarettes are still largely unknown, but something else concerns me about how popular they are becoming. With the decline of cigarette use and the rise of e-cigarette use among young adults, it seems as though this shift is due largely in part to smokers’ concerns with their image. In a recent New York Times article, a high school senior named James said that, “There’s a certain harshness to cigarettes. Girls think they’re gross” (The New York Times, “Use of E-Cigarettes Rises Sharply Among Teenagers, Report Says,” 4.16.15). From this statement, it is apparent that e-cigarettes and their fashionable technology are enticing teens to become tobacco or nicotine users.
Part of the appeal with e-cigarettes is that they come in numerous flavors and scents. Just last week, I remember a student bursting into the classroom before class began to exclaim to his friends that he had discovered a new flavor, dulce de leche, at the Smokes 4 Less store on the corner of Raymond Ave and Main Street here in Poughkeepsie. Other popular flavors include toffee, vanilla, cherry and pineapple. This array of attractive flavors could possibly mean that e-cigarettes will be more appealing to younger age groups, making it more likely that they will use other tobacco products as well.
Another appealing aspect of e-cigarettes is the ease with which teenagers can obtain them. Once an e-cigarette kit is purchased, the cost is often lower than regular cigarettes, which are more highly taxed. Teenagers can even order e-cigarettes online, easily bypassing state laws regulating the age necessary to purchase e-cigarettes. Even with the decline of regular cigarette use, these alluring factors mean that teenagers are just becoming involved in another division of the tobacco industry (The New York Times, “Use of E-Cigarettes Rises Sharply Among Teenagers, Report Says,” 4.16.15).
—Sarah Sandler ’18 is a student at Vassar College.