Jana Riess: Memo to young Latter-day Saints: Vaping is not OK, church says, and I agree

A couple of years ago I had an interesting conversation with a full-time seminary teacher in Utah who told me that a number of his otherwise faithful students had taken up vaping with e-cigarettes. Since I was researching how young adults are (or are not) keeping the standards of the Word of Wisdom, I was keenly interested in, and not a little alarmed by, this development.

“They don’t see it as violating the Word of Wisdom,” the teacher said. Since vaping exposes the user to nicotine but not tobacco, these teenagers viewed it as a healthier alternative to smoking. And some of the available flavors even make vaping sound like it’s beneficial: mango, mint, watermelon and “summer peach” are among the offerings. In the absence of an official prohibition from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these young people were experimenting.

Not so fast, the church has now clarified. In this month’s edition of the New Era, the official magazine for youths, the church states its position:

“Electronic vaporizers or e-cigarettes are devices people use to inhale mist, usually with various flavors. One study showed that nearly two-thirds of teen e-cigarette users thought that the pods they were vaping contained only flavoring. That’s way, way far from the truth. Most vaping pods contain nicotine, which is highly addictive, and all of them contain harmful chemicals. Vaping is clearly against the Word of Wisdom.”

I contacted the church’s public affairs department about it, and received the response that “church magazines are official publications and do represent the views of the church.”

So there we have it. Vaping is verboten.

This is a clarification I am truly glad to see. While cigarette smoking has been declining across the nation, vaping has seen a sharp increase, particularly among young people.

This is problematic because according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarettes are still dangerous, even though they’re not quite as toxic as tobacco. “Nicotine can harm the developing adolescent brain,” says the CDC, particularly those parts of the brain that govern important functions like self-control, attention and mood.

At least one brand of e-cigarettes, the JUUL, can be sold in a form that resembles a USB flash drive, making it hard for parents and teachers to spot. The CDC says the level of nicotine in a single JUUL pod is equivalent to the nicotine in an entire pack of traditional cigarettes.

(Samantha Maldonado | AP file photo) In this June 17, 2019, photo, a cashier displays a packet of tobacco-flavored JUUL pods at a store in San Francisco.

Speaking personally, I’m glad to see the church taking a stand on this. I’m a convert, and the only person in my family of origin who is not a smoker. I watched both of my parents die in their early 70s from smoking-related diseases (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in one, and cancer that was complicated by COPD in the other). Seeing that kind of suffering firsthand changes a person.

Defenders of vaping — and there are many — will protest that I’m lumping the traditional cigarettes that killed my parents in with these “safer” e-cigarettes.

Gee, I think I would rather trust our nation’s health to the findings of medical science than to the news releases of companies that make e-cigarettes. (In fact, some of those e-cigarette companies are subsidiaries of corporations that hid evidence for years that tobacco causes cancer.) And medical findings so far have been overwhelmingly negative: vaping can damage the lungs, increase risk of strokes and heart attacks, and harm the developing brain.

Prohibiting vaping is a slam-dunk for the church, Word of Wisdom-wise. There is simply no health benefit to vaping, only a growing list of terrible possible outcomes.

I can’t give the same ringing endorsement to the church’s prohibition of another popular substance, green tea, in the same New Era article. It states:

“Green tea and black tea are both made from the leaves of the exact same tea plant. The only difference is that the leaves in black tea are fermented and in green tea they’re not. They’re both tea and they’re both against the Word of Wisdom.”

I’m not a tea drinker myself, but this official explanation feels strange and inadequate.

Prohibiting green tea is bizarre from a health standpoint. While the research is not conclusive, some studies have shown that tea’s antioxidants may fight cell damage and even cancer. Daily consumption has been linked to lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease, improved working memory and brain function, and reduced plaque in the arteries. And yet the explanation given for the church’s prohibition of green tea is essentially a guilt-by-association rationale that it’s bad because it is derived from the same plant as black tea. What gives?

Some orthodox members will likely default to something like “if the prophet says it, then I’m sure there is a good reason.” That may prove to be the case in time, but I notice that prophetic authority is not the reason given for the church’s prohibition of vaping. E-cigarettes are forbidden because they have “harmful chemicals” and are “highly addictive.” We can’t just use medical science when it supports the church’s position, as with vaping, and then ignore medical science in favor of prophetic authority when it does not, as with green tea.

Editor’s note The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those Religion News Service.