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Amid increases in deaths related to e-cigarette use, a team of scientists at the Yale School of Medicine is conducting research on topics ranging from e-cigarette packaging to their chemical composition.

The group, Tobacco Research in Youth, has 40 researchers who have already conducted extensive research on e-cigarettes. And, as nearly 4 million adolescents have taken up vaping nationwide, team members have traveled across Connecticut to educate the public on risks associated with
using e-cigarettes.

“Our lab group is focused on understanding tobacco and substance-use behaviors and using that behavior to develop optimal intervention,” said Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin, co-leader of the research group. “A lot of our work in the past five to eight years have focused on understanding the behavior of e-cigarettes because they have emerged in the market so rapidly.”

Currently, research is unclear on how e-cigarettes affect youth. The products were first marketed as a healthier alternative to combustible cigarettes, and though Krishnan-Sarin said this was a good approach, the lack of regulation has led to millions of youth to start vaping. The team’s research has shown the wide variety of appealing e-cigarette flavors — such as “skittles,” “strawberrylicious” and “juicy fruit” — attract youth to the products. In 2014, one study found that there are 7,700 flavors available, and Krishnan-Sarin said today the number could be as high as 14,000.

“Although we knew that these products that came on the market would appeal to the youth, we didn’t realize the extent,” she said. “That has been the most startling finding for us.”

The team’s other research has shown that flavor names and pictures on e-cigarette packaging are major players in the appeal of the products to youth. Krishnan-Sarin believes these products should be regulated and their flavors removed, though she said there is still debate on the issue.

Asti Jackson, a postdoctoral fellow in the research group, was involved in an August study that involved participants vaping. But as hundreds of patients nationwide developed lung injury from e-cigarette associated use, the team halted their experiments involving vaping. They now include a pulmonologist among their ranks and require study participants to seek regular health checkups.

In addition to conducting experiments, the researchers bring their knowledge outside the lab. The team travels to Connecticut schools to educate officials, parents and youth about e-cigarettes such as Juuls, devices that can easily be mistaken for USB drives.

“Parents often have no idea what the items are,” said Jackson. “We are trying to fill that gap as we learn new things and publish that information to the public.”

Krishnan-Sarin’s work has shown that relatively few people use combustible cigarettes today, and she believes it is largely due to the public health campaigns on the risks. Although there is still much research to be done on e-cigarettes, Krishnan-Sarin argues that there should be similar campaigns about the risks associated with vaping to limit consumption in youth.

There are nine other government funded tobacco research centers in the U.S. who collaborate with the center at Yale.

Tamar Geller | tamar.geller@yale.edu