Placeholder, vaping

In 1602, an anonymous English author noticed some similarities between chimney sweeps and those who indulged in a new product that was making its way in the Old World.

That product was tobacco, introduced to Europe when Columbus returned from his first voyage to North America. The similarity was the tendency to cough, wheeze and otherwise act like something other than clean air was filling your lungs.

It took another 350 years for a scientific consensus to form around the smoking of tobacco products. Today, the risks of lighting up are clearly established, but a new cigarette product is gaining popularity amid unknowns that resemble that tenuous early connection between smoking and cleaning chimneys

There’s little about an e-cigarette that evokes the 17th century. These devices bring an aura of high-tech modernity, with versions that look like computer flash drives or larger, tank-style e-cigarettes that resemble something Luke Skywalker would carry on his belt.

How popular is vaping among teenagers and young adults? The U.S. Surgeon General calls it an epidemic, while a local high school student says hall monitors are tasked with making sure someone doesn’t take a quick e-cig puff between classes.

There was a time when young smokers had the courtesy to go to the bathroom or smoker’s corner.

Evidence is beginning to emerge that this new type of smoking is not free of danger, though little long-term data exists. The vapors can contain traces of arsenic and other heavy metals. Some e-cigs are loaded with higher levels of nicotine than cigarettes — sometimes even higher than what’s advertised. Health officials are alarmed at the ease of smoking high concentrates of THC, while hiding the odor, in a process called dabbing.

Now comes nearly 200 mysterious lung illnesses, with some patients placed on a ventilator for breathing assistance. A federal health investigation continues, but all of the cases involved patients, some in their teens and early 20s, who used e-cigarettes.

Technology moves at a fast pace, compared to the days when ships first brought a new leaf to English chimney sweeps. One can’t help but think the final verdict on e-cigarettes will move faster than what was learned, over centuries, with the traditional version.

Until then, and amid great uncertainty, parents and young people should heed the warnings from health officials. The St. Joseph City Council would be wise to reverse its decision from three years ago that exempted e-cigarettes from the city’s indoor smoking ban.

At the time, the feeling was e-cigs were not a traditional tobacco product. That may be true, but they are shrouded in a haze of uncertainty.