With the unrelenting tragedy of the opioid epidemic and the astronomic growth in flavored marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol products packaged in appealing and child-friendly ways, incidents of childhood exposures to addictive substances in the home are becoming more common. Lax or nonexistent regulations restricting certain flavored vaping products, marijuana edibles, and alcoholic beverages that look like juice or soda make it far too easy for young children to get their hands on these products without the awareness of the adults around them.
Even small doses of an addictive substance – whether nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, prescription medicine, marijuana, or other illegal drugs – can be highly toxic to a young child. Children who touch or eat these substances may demonstrate a range of symptoms, from fatigue or stomach pain to slurred speech, trouble breathing, seizures, or coma.
When a substance is legal, there is a sense of safety; that is partially why the opioid epidemic originated with the misuse of prescription medications, why the risks of vaping nicotine have been underestimated, and why marijuana legalization is problematic with regard to youth. But babies and young children may be most vulnerable to the collateral damage from these substances, not only through neglect, secondhand exposure, and an increased risk of future addiction, but also through unintentional ingestion.
Policymakers are increasingly requiring enhanced child safety packaging for potentially harmful substances, especially prescription opioids, which is essential for curbing children’s access. The safety landscape when it comes to marijuana edibles and flavored nicotine cartridges is much more precarious. And the protection afforded by child-resistant packaging is only effective if the products are kept inside the packaging and out of sight and reach of young children.
This week is National Poison Prevention Week, proclaimed by the White House to raise awareness of the dangers, especially to children, of exposure to poisonous substances, and how to prevent such exposure and respond in the event of an exposure.
For this proclamation to have any real meaning, policymakers must do more to protect vulnerable children from the growing exposure to young children of appealing, addictive, and potentially toxic substances.
They should get the facts out to the public through population-wide awareness campaigns targeted to parents, other caregivers, educators, and health care professionals. States enacting or considering liberalizing their marijuana or other drug use laws should ensure that they mandate strong child-resistant packaging requirements, including that products be packaged in small, nonfatal doses.
More effective regulations are also needed to clamp down on child-appealing packaging and marketing that promote unintentional access and consumption of these products by young children. Clear warnings on product labels or in packaging inserts should be required to be included with all addictive products sold by retailers, including vape shops that sell nicotine products, food and beverage markets that sell alcohol or caffeinated energy drinks, pharmacies that dispense controlled prescription medications, and dispensaries that sell marijuana edibles and vapes. Finally, there should be legal immunity for caregivers who report a childhood exposure to an illegal substance to a poison control center or a medical facility to ensure honest and accurate reporting and timely and appropriate medical intervention.
Regardless of the steps policymakers take to protect young children from exposure to potentially toxic addictive substances, parents, families, and other caregivers are still on the front lines when it comes to ensuring children’s safety. Parents take few chances when it comes to protecting young children from foreseeable hazards. But these hazards are not only those posed by household products stored under the sink. Of the many harms associated with addictive substances, childhood poisoning is probably the most consequential and also the easiest to avoid. Addictive substances in homes with young children, whether legal or not, should be limited, stored far out of children’s reach, and disposed of properly when no longer needed.
When we put an infant in a car, we would never consider forgoing the car seat “just this once” hoping there won’t be a crash. Why would we ever leave a vape, marijuana edible, can of alcohol, or a pill within easy access of children? Protecting kids from the harms of addictive substances must begin not when they are teenagers, but when they’re born.
In the event of a suspected exposure, immediately call or text the local poison control center for life-saving tips from trained professionals who are available to offer confidential help 24 hours a day, every day of the year (1-800-222-1222 or text POISON to 797979). If a child is unresponsive or having trouble breathing, call 911 right away. Once you speak with a health care professional, provide accurate and detailed information about the exposure incident to ensure the child receives the appropriate intervention.