What is Vaping Doing to Young People?
At the end of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that cigarette smoking had reached the lowest level ever recorded among U.S. adults. Exciting news, right? Yes! But just when you think people are finally moving away from smoking—which is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.—vaping is luring in millions of teenagers.
But isn’t this a positive trend, you ask? Haven’t e-cigarettes been shown to help some adults quit smoking? And aren’t they technically less harmful than traditional cigarettes?
Since vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, the jury is still out on all the health concerns associated with it, but as we’ll show in this article, vaping is a risky trend with drawbacks that appear to outweigh its benefits.
What is vaping?
Let’s back up here and clarify exactly what vaping is. Vaping involves inhaling and exhaling vapor produced by an e-cigarette, vape pen, advanced personal vaporizer (known as a MOD) or related device. These vaping devices contain the following components:
- Cartridge that contains e-liquid (or e-juice)
- Heating mechanism (battery-powered or rechargeable) that turns the e-liquid into aerosol or vapor
The most popular vaping device currently on the market is the JUUL that looks a lot like a USB flash drive for your computer. JUULs command nearly three-fourths of the market for vaping devices.
Are e-cigarettes safer than actual cigarettes?
E-cigarettes hit the mass market around 2007, and a lot of people looked to them as a safe alternative to cigarettes that could actually help people stop smoking. Their biggest advantage was that they did not burn tobacco.
While e-cigarettes may look safer than traditional cigarettes on paper, they carry alternative risks that make them distinctly unsafe. Consider the following:
- They contain nicotine—and some devices are loaded with it. In the case of the JUULs described above, one flavor cartridge has about as much nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes. Nicotine is highly addictive, and research is now showing that it can serve as a gateway to traditional cigarettes. Furthermore, nicotine has been shown to harm the development of brains in teens, children, and the fetuses of pregnant women who vape.
- They contain chemicals (such as volatile organic compounds and heavy metals) that have been linked to lung disease and cancer.
What do the studies show?
A gateway to smoking
Since vaping has only been on the market for a little over a decade, scientists are not yet able to assess its long-term effects. However, there are some compelling studies that show that vaping puts users at high risk.
For example, a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that teenagers who vaped were three times more likely to smoke traditional cigarettes as those who had never tried e-cigarettes. Those results were corroborated by a 2018 study of over 1,000 British teenagers. Published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, this study showed that the youth were 12 times more likely to smoke traditional cigarettes than their peers who didn’t vape.
Addictive patterns outweigh addiction-breaking patterns
There is evidence to show that vaping can help people quit smoking; however, it is overshadowed by evidence that shows the harmful effects of vaping. A study from Dartmouth University created a mathematical model based on census data to show that over 2,000 adults were able to quit smoking with the assistance of e-cigarettes in 2015. However, during that time, nearly 170,000 young people who vaped started using traditional cigarettes (in spite of never smoking before).
Exposes users to hazardous chemicals
A University of California study that was published in Pediatrics (2018) studied 100 teens in the San Francisco area. The study found significant levels of hazardous chemicals (similar to those found in Styrofoam and acid) in the urine of those who vaped as compared to those who did not vape.
Another 2018 UC study found toxic metals (such as lead) in the vapor of roughly 70 randomly-sampled vaping devices. The toxins were also found in the urine of young users and are believed to originate from the heating process inherent to vaping.
What is the government doing about vaping?
Recent federal data shows that there are more than 2,000 cases of vaping-related illnesses across the U.S. that have landed otherwise healthy people in the hospital with serious lung diseases. At least 39 deaths related to vaping have been confirmed.
The CDC has identified vitamin E acetate, which has so far been found in the lungs of 29 of these victims, as a possible culprit, but more study is needed. The Trump administration has threatened to pull e-cigarettes off the market, but that has not yet come to fruition. With definitive federal action still pending, many states are limiting the sale of vaping products.
The FDA began imposing regulations on the companies that manufacture e-cigarettes in 2016. However, those manufacturers (such as market leader JUUL) that have been around since before then are not subject to the same approval processes that newer companies are (and they have a grace period until 2020 to get FDA authorization).
Is your child at risk for vaping?
Vaping has been in the headlines a lot lately, but for some families, it has become personal. If you have a child or teen, you may wonder how to keep them away from this risky trend. Here are a few tips:
Talk about it. Studies show that nearly 1 in 5 teens believes that vaping is less harmful than cigarettes. Have a conversation so that they understand that while e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, they carry an abundance of risks that make them very harmful. Remember that your teens are likely being exposed to vaping ads on their phones and computers, so you need to speak up to debunk the myths those ads may be propagating.
Communicate expectations. Be specific here, and let your teens know that you expect them to stay away from both cigarettes and e-cigarettes.
Be an example. Actions speak louder than words. If you vape or smoke, your advice to stay away from those habits is going to lose a lot of impact.
Know what to look for. If you think your child may be vaping, familiarize yourself with vaping devices so you know how to spot them. They’re sleek, small, and easy to conceal in a backpack or purse, so it pays to educate yourself. You can also watch for vaping lingo in their texts or social media posts. Terms such as 510 (a popular type of e-cigarette battery), cloud chasing (creating big clouds of vapor), and dripping (dripping e-juice into an atomizer) are a few examples. Look online to get smart on more terms.
Watch for symptoms. If your child is vaping, they may experience shortness of breath, increased thirst, nose bleeds, or other health issues.
Watch for unusual purchases. Keep tabs on your kids’ finances. Watch for online purchases of vaping paraphernalia or unexplained money transfers to friends.
To quote Ana Rule, who teaches environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University and has authored studies on e-cigarettes and their effects on teens, “Vaping among teens is my (and most public health professionals) biggest worry.”
Vaping is a big deal. Too many young people are getting sick and even dying because of its effects, and there’s likely more to come until we get a handle on this disturbing trend.