OU Medicine researcher to study effects of vaping on youth, young adults

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A Juul with vapor Oct. 9.

As rates of vape use on college campuses rise, a researcher from OU Medicine hopes to understand the connection between vapes and e-cigarettes and lung injuries.

Alayna Tackett, a researcher at the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center at Stephenson Cancer Center, was given a five-year research grant to study the respiratory effects of vaping on youth and young adults by the National Institutes of Health, according to a press release from the OTRC.

According to an April column by student health consultant Anshule Takyar as part of Public Health Discussions, research on vaping lacks data on college students. Studies like Tackett’s may begin to help fill the gap beyond what is currently available.

Tackett said the study will examine the respiratory effects of e-cigarettes on young adults aged 15–21 by assessing how they impact the respiratory systems of current e-cigarette users compared to non-users.

Many e-cigarette products are not yet regulated by the FDA, Tackett said. She hopes her study will help public health officials better understand the effects of vaping products and how they can be regulated.

Tackett’s research comes at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 1,888 reports of lung injuries connected to use of e-cigarettes and vaping as of Oct. 29, 2019. According to the report, 21 percent of patients were aged 18–20 and 16 percent were under 18. 

Norman Public Schools implemented a tobacco and nicotine prevention curriculum for the 2019-2020 school year due to e-cigarette use among youth — which has "skyrocketed in recent years" according to the NPS website. The new curriculum is devoted to educating K-12 students on the dangers of exposure to cancer-causing substances, as increased risk of asthma and respiratory irritations can be attributed to vaping, according to the school district's website.

“Some of these kids and these young adults that have experienced the disease — we still don't know how they're going to do later on down the road,” said Jeremy Moad of OU Medical Center in Edmond. “I mean, they could be really causing problems for themselves.”

One of the concerns for pulmonary critical care specialists like Moad is that young people who use vapes may permanently damage their lungs and could pick up cigarettes in the future. 

“Related to the U.S. epidemic of e-cigarettes, a lot of youth are using these products — we don't really know what the effects are on them on the respiratory system,” Tackett said. “So the goal of this project, or this project study period, is to really determine some foundational evidence of the respiratory effects related to e-cigarette use.”

According to a report by the Office of the Surgeon General, when young people become addicted early on, it becomes more difficult to quit. 

Environmental studies junior Isabel English said she started using friends’ vapes when she was a freshman in high school and began using e-cigarettes more often this past summer.

“When I was regularly vaping, I’d do it pretty much all the time — anytime I was in my car, out with friends or doing homework," English said. "I began because my friends had been vaping and I would be trying theirs, and I eventually wanted one of my own.”

English’s story is similar to many young adult vape users Tackett and Moad have found.

“What we see is that 15 to 17 is actually one of the highest periods of use experimentation with e-cigarettes,” Tackett said. “If we really want to understand what products these kids are using, what the health effects can potentially be of using these products, we really want to target the people that are using it.”

English said she stopped using e-cigarettes because of the financial strain, health concerns and the plastic waste created by e-cigarettes, but quitting has been difficult because they are so addictive. 

“I have read a lot of articles online about new cases of respiratory illness believed to be linked to vaping,” English said. “I’ve had a lot of discussions with friends about whether these companies market their products toward minors, whether flavored vaping products should be prohibited, or if outright bans are the right choice. I definitely think these products should have stricter regulations and should be less popularized in media." 

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