“There’s a lot more that we don’t know than we do know,” Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health Michael Mendoza said during his talk on vaping.

During his Friday, Feb. 21 talk in the SON Auditorium of the School of Nursing, Mendoza highlighted medical findings that link vaping to irreversible diseases like cancer and bronchiolitis obliterans (also called popcorn lung), but acknowledged that the research is still in its early stages. He added that the common perception of e-cigarettes as safer than traditional cigarettes has no supporting data.

What is known, he said, is that nicotine — a drug commonly found in e-cigarettes — activates dopamine in the brain and increases the risk of addiction. Individuals who have chronic exposure to dopamine early in their life become “less resilient to addiction down the road,” Mendoza said, putting younger consumers of vaping products at higher risk.

Mendoza also talked about the recent outbreak of severe vaping-associated lung illnesses. At the UR Medical Center, he said, there were three cases of young, healthy patients with shortness of breath and a history of vaping, mirroring the sometimes lethal cases reported in several other states.

Overall, Mendoza said, “82% of these patients reported using a THC-containing e-cigarette,” suggesting that illegally-solicited THC cartridges were the culprit of the epidemic rather than nicotine vapes.

Later in the talk, Mendoza emphasized that a public health approach to the problem of youth vaping was necessary. This would entail defining the problem, identifying risks, developing and testing preventive strategies, and ultimately ensuring widespread adoption by promoting programs and policies in schools that would encourage the youth to abstain from vaping in the first place.

Mendoza cited the prohibition and criminalization of cannabis as a historic example of why banning e-cigarettes is not a permanent solution. He underlined the importance and effectiveness of “protective factors” which would support children in school and make them feel valued in their communities. This would potentially alleviate the problem of drug abuse among children, he said, by targeting and eliminating the root cause — neglect from authority figures.

As a final piece of advice, Mendoza warned the audience that research surrounding e-cigarettes is largely uncertain and in no way confirms that vaping is a safer alternative to cigarettes or a valid way to quit smoking.

“There are a whole host of evidence-based approaches to quit smoking,” said Mendoza, adding that “we would much rather have people utilize those evidence-based approaches than something else.”

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