Electronic cigarettes are growing in popularity and are commonly found in households with children. They are often used by parents who have previously smoked traditional cigarettes to minimize the secondhand smoke exposure to their children. While this instinct may be applauded, children in these households are exposed to an often unrecognized and potentially fatal risk due to poisoning.
As most people now know, nicotine is the main drug extracted from tobacco, a carcinogen that feeds the addiction that is the basis for the cigarette industry. Liquid nicotine used to refill e-cigarettes is a great danger to children. Calls to poison control centers related to liquid nicotine ingestions are increasing. In the last year, there were more than 3,500 such calls — more than double the number from the previous year. For young kids, liquid nicotine is a poison in very small quantities.
Tiny amounts of liquid nicotine that are swallowed or absorbed through the skin can be fatal for young children. Even a teaspoon can cause shaking, vomiting and cardiac complications. A spill that has not been completely cleaned up and is touched or licked by a toddler can lead to catastrophe because nicotine is absorbed by the mouth and skin.
This past December, a toddler in New York drank a small container of liquid nicotine and died. There is no antidote to nicotine, and typical supportive care measures may be inadequate by the time medical care is sought by the caregivers. The consequence of poisoning can be more dire if the child is not witnessed to have drunk the poison because this can delay medical care.
Liquid nicotine is potent, hazardous and currently unregulated. It is marketed to be attractive to kids, with bright containers and attractive flavors like bubble gum and cherry candy. These are known marketing tactics of the cigarette industry that were restricted for just these reasons that are being resurrected for this new medium for exactly the same reasons.
Packages of liquid nicotine are not required to be child-proofed under our current law. We protect our children from medicine containers and cleaning products, so it makes great sense to do the same for liquid nicotine. We need to do this because liquid nicotine is just as toxic to tots as Drano.
Parents should talk to their children about the dangers of e-cigarettes. These devices are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means that the contents can include unidentified and toxic substances in varying amounts. For parents who want to quit smoking, there are other effective and proven ways to do so. Speak with your doctors to get advice about alternatives because smoking cessation is generally covered by insurance.
There is legislation not yet passed that aims to protect children from liquid nicotine poisoning by requiring child-resistant packaging. This measure can help to protect kids from needless nicotine poisoning. State legislators should support LD 423, “An Act to Require Child-resistant Packaging for Products Containing Liquid Nicotine.”
Additionally, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King should support the Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act of 2015 pending in the U.S. Senate.
We need to take a step to eliminate this pediatric risk from liquid nicotine. We need to do this for the sake of our children, who represent 20 percent of our population and all of our future. What is good for kids is good for Maine.
Dr. Janice L. Pelletier of Orono is a pediatrician and the president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Sean Hagenbuch of Bangor is a pediatric cardiologist at Eastern Maine Medical Center.