Vaping has been a big story in the news in the past few weeks and a recent study on vaping among teenagers aprompted me to talk to my own kids about it. My eighth and 10th graders both told me they’ve been aware of vaping among their peers, some even on school grounds. I was surprised by just how unsurprising it is to them: Vapes have arrived on the teen scene.
Curious to learn more, I spoke with Joanna Cohen, Ph.D., Director of the Institute for Global Tobacco Control and Bloomberg Professor of Disease Prevention at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, to get some perspective on the topic. Cohen shared her concerns about the increase in vaping among today’s youth.
A troubling trend
At the same time that we have seen declining use of traditional cigarettes in recent years, Cohen confirms that e-cigarette use has ramped up among young people. We can hope that to some degree its popularity is a fad and the novelty will diminish, but there’s no doubt it’s here for now.
According to a national study by the U.S. Surgeon General in 2014, more than a quarter of students in grades six through 12 had tried e-cigarettes. And those numbers have climbed since. Boys are twice as likely as girls to use e-cigarettes.
The Surgeon General’s research found that teens recognize that tobacco use is unsafe, but 60 percent of American teens believe that e-cigarettes cause little harm, and less than 30 percent believed they are very harmful.
“The only group to potentially gain any benefit from vaping is regular cigarette users who could use it as a means of quitting,” Cohen says.
For teens, there is certainly no reason to start, and good reason to avoid it. Nicotine affects brain development, so that is a known risk for kids.
But sometimes vapes are used for marijuana or other drugs, in what is called “JUULing,” another term parents might have heard and need to know. JUUL refers to a specific brand of vape that allows kids to easily smoke marijuana, sometimes even in a class or on a bus, because the JUUL doesn’t emit any odor or smoke.
Discovering new dangers
Even when a vape is not used to deliver drugs, there are still health risks. “The way these devices work is by heating a liquid and creating an aerosol that is inhaled,” Cohen explains. The Food and Drug Administration has rated the ingredients to be generally recognized as safe, though only in regard to the substances being ingested, not inhaled. That difference is significant.
“We’re still learning about the health effects of these chemicals when inhaled,” Cohen warns. There are known carcinogens (toxic metals, formaldehyde, glycerol, etc.) in these products, and heating and inhaling these compounds can cause cancer. The study of carcinogens and respiratory irritants in e-cigarettes is still relatively new compared to regular cigarettes, so more dangers are emerging.
Another worry is that vaping could lead teens to traditional cigarettes. Some statistics say that 30 percent of youth who use e-cigarettes will progress to traditional cigarettes. But that figure is hard to pinpoint, Cohen admits, because there is a degree of “chicken and egg,” wherein certain teenagers might have smoked cigarettes anyway. Adolescents and young people can be impressionable, prone to follow peer pressure and willing to take risks because they feel like the danger warnings don’t apply to them — all of which makes teens the prime targets for the tobacco industry’s marketing.
Designed to appeal
First generation e-cigarettes looked a lot like regular cigarettes. They were disposable and not as effective or attractive as today’s models. Some modern e-systems have sleek styling and improved ways to control the liquid and make delivery of the contents more efficient, Cohen says. Flavors add to the allure for young people. The Surgeon General’s findings show that flavored e-cigarettes (such as menthol, candy, alcohol, fruit, chocolate, and other sweets) are especially popular with young adults and are the choice of more than 80 percent of users between the ages of 12 and 17.
The report also found that the e-cigarette industry is banking on success, spending more than $125 million in advertising, reaping more than $2.5 billion revenue in 2014, and climbing. They are relying on many of the same marketing techniques that made traditional cigarettes so popular and their tactics have proven effective with young people exposed to the messages.
What should parents know?
The bottom line for parents is to be aware that vaping is fairly common among adolescents and young people and most teens have already been exposed to it in some way. Know that it is not a safe practice. There are harmful, cancer-causing chemical compounds and toxic materials in that aerosol that are bad to inhale and are known to be in there, Cohen cautions.
“Parents should talk to their kids about it as they would any other drug,” Cohen says. Discuss with them the impressions they may already have about vaping and what they should do if confronted with a choice to try it. For a solid, credible reference and helpful tips, Cohen suggests you check out the U.S. Surgeon General’s report and fact sheets online at e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov.