Disposable “puffs” and the marketing of them via addictive social media platforms has led to sharp rise in the number of children vaping in Switzerland. A report by RTS outlines the concerns, shows how ineffective legal bans have been so far and how helpless authorities feel in the face of the phenomenon.
The health risks of vaping, which affect the development of young brains, are becoming known. Nicotine is associated with cardiovascular disease. The chemical causes blood vessels to constrict. This limits blood flow and can result in the heart working harder. Over time this can result in blood vessels that are stiff and less elastic and increase the likelihood of a heart attack.
In addition, there are plenty of unknowns with vaping. Emerging data suggest it may be associated with chronic lung disease and asthma. “You’re exposing yourself to all kinds of chemicals that we don’t yet understand and that are probably not safe”, said Michael Blaha, a doctor and director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. There are also concerns around the possibility of mouth and other kinds of cancer. These products are new so their long term health effects are unknown.
Knowing the impact of the chemicals in these products beyond nicotine is not straight forward. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US attributed 2,807 lung injuries and 68 deaths to vaping. The CDC identified vitamin E acetate as the offending chemical in the e-cigarettes used by these patients. After this the CDC recommended not using THC-containing e-cigarettes or vaping products, and to avoid using informal sources, such as friends, family or online dealers to obtain vaping devices.
E-cigarettes have also proved disappointing for getting people off regular tobacco products. Unfortunately, they are just as addictive. A recent study found that most people who intended to use e-cigarettes to kick the nicotine habit ended up continuing to use traditional and e-cigarettes. And addiction appears to be more intense and rapid among the young because their brains are building and reinforcing new neural networks.
The rise of e-cigarette use among young Swiss has not gone unnoticed. Concerned about the negative health consequences, the authorities in all of Switzerland’s French-speaking cantons, with the exception of Vaud and Jura (one is pending there), have made selling the devices to under 18s illegal. In German-speaking Switzerland only Bern, Basel-City and Basel-Landschaft have introduced bans.
Cheap disposable “puffs” often with fruit flavours are the key driver of the explosive growth in sales of e-cigarettes. One industry projection estimates sales growth of 2,200% in 2022 in Switzerland.
There are no national laws restricting the sale or marketing of these products in Switzerland. At a national level e-cigarettes must only comply with food laws. A new national law to prevent minors buying these products is being crafted but it is not expected to enter into force until 2024. Until then the job will be left to cantonal governments.
Beyond the law there is also the question of enforcement. Early evidence from French-speaking Switzerland suggests sales bans there are not working. In an experiment, 41% of undercover teenagers across the region were illegally sold e-cigarettes, reported RTS. Schools are also struggling to keep the devices off school grounds. They are small look a lot like highlighters and so can be easily hidden.
Another challenge is restricting marketing. Social media, where the most effective marketing takes place, it difficult to monitor and regulate. The devices can easily be bought online as well. Some school pupils in Switzerland have been buying extra devices online and selling them at school.
Some of the devices available in Switzerland were found to have excessive levels of nicotine. The standard level is 2%. However, devices dispensing doses containing 5% nicotine were found on the market in Switzerland, according to the RTS report.
Switzerland has some of the weakest laws on tobacco control, according to Luciano Ruggia, managing director of the Swiss association for tobacco control. To reduce the health damage from teenage vaping he recommends better laws and information. Parents and teachers need to be aware and understand the phenomenon.