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National view: Lung cancer battle raises concerns about e-cigs, other ‘nicotine-delivery devices’

November has been Lung Cancer Awareness Month and a good time to recall an old saying in the lung cancer community: “If you’ve got lungs, you can get lung cancer.” Lung cancer is everybody’s fight.

It’s the deadliest cancer in America, accounting for 25 percent of all cancer deaths. Lung cancer is also the leading cause of cancer deaths among women. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 71,600 women will die of lung cancer this year. And you may be surprised to learn that of the women who get lung cancer, approximately 1 in 5 are nonsmokers.

Unfortunately, the false stigma that automatically ties smoking to lung cancer has severely hindered life-saving lung cancer research. In fact, of the $5.3 billion the National Cancer Institute receives every year from the federal government, only 6.5 percent is devoted to lung cancer.

That’s a big part of the reason my husband, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, is a founder and co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Lung Cancer Caucus. For us, and for millions of other families, lung cancer and the need for more federal support for prevention, treatment and, ultimately, a cure, is personal. Our youngest daughter, Katherine, is battling nonsmoking stage 4 small cell lung cancer. And Rick’s father and aunt both had lung cancer.

Of course, the battle against lung cancer is being waged on many fronts, including efforts to discourage young people from smoking. In that regard, experts increasingly are concerned that hard-won progress against lung cancer could be curbed by the growing popularity of “nicotine-delivery devices,” particularly electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, that turn nicotine into an inhalable liquid vapor, and hookah, which are water pipes used to smoke flavored tobacco.

Simply stated, we don’t really know how dangerous these products are or what chemicals and components users are taking into their bodies. For example, we know little about the safety of propylene glycol, a substance contained in many e-cigarettes. And tests have found that some e-cigarettes contain small amounts of nitrosamines and formaldehyde, both cancer-causing agents.

Thankfully, after years of public review and comment, new Food and Drug Administration regulations are being rolled out to address these concerns. Over the next two years, the FDA will be given more authority to require manufacturers to report the content of their products to the public.

Until then, though, the chemicals — and the potential health effects — will remain largely unknown.

Young people are particularly attracted to the exotic and fruity flavors available in e-cigarettes and specialty tobaccos. In fact, a 2014 Minnesota Department of Health survey of more than 70 schools revealed that 13 percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students had used e-cigarettes. Those figures are even higher nationwide as these nicotine-delivery devices have become big business. By some estimates, U.S. sales of e-cigarettes and other more-specialized e-smoking products reached $5.5 billion in 2015.

The new FDA regulations will make it harder for children and teenagers to obtain e-cigarettes, hookah tobacco and cigars. Even now, it’s illegal to sell these products to anyone younger than 18 or in vending machines accessible to minors. The FDA also no longer allows stores to give away samples of new tobacco products.

These measures will help in the battle against lung cancer, but we all need to take our own steps to promote tobacco-free families, homes and communities.

Remember, if you’ve got lungs, you can get lung cancer. We’ve all got lungs, so we all have a stake in this fight.

Mary Nolan of Crosby, Minn., is a member of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation and is the wife of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. She wrote this for the News Tribune

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