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Associated Press file photo / A woman uses her vaping device in Harmony, Pa.

Editor's note: This article is part of a series answering your biggest religious questions. Each week, we will answer one submitted faith question. To send a submission, visit timesfreepress.com/religionquestions or email wmassey@timesfreepress.com.

Question: Does Christianity have anything to say about vaping?

Vaping, or e-cigarette use, is increasingly the focus of public health officials and news media as the number of vaping-related illnesses continues to rise.

There have been more than three dozen cases of vaping-related illness in Tennessee and nearly 1,300 cases across the country. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 26 vaping-related deaths in 21 states.

In a letter sent in early October, more than a dozen health groups petitioned Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to create "an emergency temporary measure to restrict Tennessee youth from obtaining vaping products." Last month, the Children's Hospital at Erlanger launched a new youth clinic to combat e-cigarette use in patients under age 21.

There are many parallels in the Christian tradition between vaping and drinking or smoking, said Dr. Jeffrey Bishop, St. Louis University professor of health care ethics and theology. Nicotine is a stimulant, just like alcohol, and the e-cigarette is a delivery mechanism, just like a cigarette is a way to deliver nicotine to the body, he said.

"It's not so much the delivery mechanism, the vaping itself, that must be considered, but it's what the person is trying to achieve with the drugs," Bishop said.

Many stimulants are a double-edged sword ethically, Bishop said. Alcohol may help some people lower social anxieties or relax, but it also has long-term health effects and can lower inhibitions to the point where people endanger themselves or others. At the same time, some people are biologically predisposed to become addicted to substances.

History taught Christian leaders in these cases that it is better to focus on building a person's self-understanding and ethics, rather than pushing for a universal law.

In the early 20th century, Protestant Christians were integral in the push for Prohibition, Bishop said. The movement failed in part because people saw there was some social good in having alcohol in society. The failure also showed that banning things with cultural significance is not effective to stop their use, Bishop said.

"Can you really stop an activity by making rules against it?" he said. " If you want to change behavior, you have to change their hearts. The Christian tradition has always said you have to examine yourself and know your limitations."

People who vape should consider why they are using e-cigarettes. If it is out of a desire to be seen as cool or culturally relevant, perhaps this is a sign there are underlying spiritual issue or social problem, Bishop said.

A focus on individual use is not a reason to disregard the larger social considerations of vaping, which could require stricter regulation of e-cigarettes, specifically the allegations of e-cigarette companies marketing to children, said Matthew Arbo, Oklahoma Baptist University assistant professor of biblical and theological studies.

Christians should consider what signals vaping sends to younger generations and other people in society, Arbo said. This is similar to why many Christian traditions dissuade lavish living or sexual promiscuity. There is a risk of normalizing behaviors that could be damaging, Arbo said, and at this point, there is not enough known about the effects of vaping to know the true cost.

Kathryn Reklis, Fordham University associate professor of theology, pointed to 1 Corinthians 6:12 as a guidepost for what Christians choose to do, such as vaping. The verse reads, "'I have the right to do anything,' you say — but not everything is beneficial. 'I have the right to do anything' — but I will not be mastered by anything."

From the reporter

I became a journalist to help people see people as people. But highlighting the human side of every policy decision, and how it is affecting your community, takes time as well as support from readers. If you believe in telling the stories of people in your community, please subscribe to the Times Free Press today. Contact me at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find me on Twitter at @News4Mass.

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