Dr. Sumaira Gul
In recent years, Pakistan, and particularly the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, has found itself grappling with a concerning rise in teenage vaping. This surge aligns with the global shift towards electronic cigarettes, positioning them as an alternative to traditional smoking. This trend, however, is not without its risks, especially as it gains traction among the youth and urban populations of Pakistan.
The appeal of vaping in the country is amplified by the ease of access to vaping devices and e-liquids through online platforms and local vape shops. The pervasive influence of social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok has also played a pivotal role in the increasing popularity of vaping among the younger demographic. This evolving landscape presents not just a local challenge but underscores a broader global phenomenon that demands attention.
Electronic cigarettes made their debut in 2003, introduced by a Chinese inventor, with the initial promise of being a smoking cessation aid. However, by 2006, these devices had made their way to Europe and North America, quickly shedding their intended purpose and reaching epidemic levels of usage in certain regions of the world. The rise has been exponential, with an estimated 55 million e-cigarette users worldwide in 2021. Global vaping sales soared to $15.7 billion in 2018 and are projected to hit a staggering $40 billion by 2023.
While the data on the global scale is concerning, the situation in Pakistan is particularly alarming. Statistics reveal that 6.2% of the population uses vaping/e-cigarettes, while 15.9 million individuals (12.4%) resort to smokeless tobacco. This raises red flags regarding the health implications and underscores the urgency for preventive measures.
The health risks associated with vaping are a growing concern, though the long-term effects are still under scrutiny. Studies suggest potential harm to lung health, including an elevated risk of lung cancer and respiratory diseases. For adolescents, the presence of nicotine in e-liquids is particularly worrying due to its potential impact on brain development and cognitive functions.
One of the contributing factors to the popularity of vaping among Pakistani youth is the marketing narrative that portrays it as a safer alternative to smoking. The use of flavored e-liquids, such as mango and mint, has further intensified the appeal, raising serious concerns about nicotine addiction and long-term health effects. This marketing strategy, coupled with the lack of awareness among the youth about the potential risks, creates a dangerous concoction.
A significant hurdle in addressing the rise of vaping in Pakistan is the absence of specific regulations. Unlike several countries that rigorously control the sale and use of e-cigarettes, Pakistan has yet to establish comprehensive regulatory measures for these products. This regulatory vacuum raises safety and quality concerns for the vaping products available in the market, potentially putting the health of users at risk.
Adding to the complexity is the tobacco industry’s deployment of marketing strategies seemingly targeted at younger demographics. Placing cigarettes near children’s snacks and drinks, positioning advertisements at eye level for children, and selling flavored cigarettes all contribute to initiatives that aim to initiate tobacco use among children. This heightens the risk of nicotine addiction from a young age, perpetuating a cycle that poses long-term health risks.
In light of the escalating trend of vaping among Pakistani teens, the absence of regulation, and the tobacco industry’s aggressive marketing strategies, immediate and comprehensive action is imperative. Implementing stringent regulations and potentially considering a ban on vaping could be crucial in protecting public health, especially the health of young people. While effective enforcement of existing measures, such as the comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, is vital, the specific risks associated with vaping necessitate dedicated regulations and potentially a complete ban to shield the youth from the hazards of nicotine addiction and prevent a transition to traditional smoking.
In essence, the rising trend of vaping is not merely a fad but a pressing public health challenge that demands urgent attention and decisive action. The consequences of inaction could reverberate for generations, affecting the health and well-being of the youth in Pakistan. It is time for the government, health authorities, and society at large to come together, implement preventive measures, and safeguard the future of the nation’s youth from the insidious grip of vaping.