By Dr. Elizabeth Linder, Grace Cottage Family Health Pediatrician
The use of e-cigarettes is a rising trend these days, for adults, but also particularly for teens. In just over a decade, this fad has grown into huge industry, with hundreds of thousands of users.
Use among teens has seen the fastest growth. The National Youth Tobacco Survey for 2011-15 shows that the rate among teens was 2% in 2011 and had risen to 16% just four years later. In 2015, more teens reported use of e-cigarettes than conventional cigarettes (15% vs. 11%). Nearly one in four Vermont middle- and high-school students have tried an e-cigarette.
If you are a parent, or any adult who takes care of, and cares for children, what do you need to know about e-cigarettes? Are they really a safe alternative to regular cigarettes? How do you talk to your kids about e-cigarettes?
First, you have to know the vocabulary.
E-cigarette is a shortened form of the word electronic-cigarette. Sometimes called an “e-cig,” these devices have a battery inside that heats liquid into an aerosol (vapor). The user inhales the vapor in an activity that simulates smoking.
E-hookahs, vapes, vape pens, vaping devices, personal vaporizers, mod tanks, or mods: all of these are other slang words used to refer to e-cigarettes. Slang always evolves, so other terms may be used as well, especially by a teen speaking in code to another teen.
Vaping is the term used for use of this device, because of the vapor that is inhaled.
E-liquid, e-juice, and vape juice are terms for the liquid used in the e-cigarette. Despite what you may hear from your teen, this liquid often does contain nicotine, as well as propylene glycol, glycerine, and flavorings. Propylene glycol is an ingredient in antifreeze, but it is also used as a food additive, in cosmetics, and in some medications.
E-cigarettes can also be used to inhale marijuana and other drugs. They are a convenient way to do this discreetly because many of them are created to look like ordinary objects like pens, computer thumb drives, and pencil sharpeners
The risks associated with the nicotine used in e-cigarettes may be less than with conventional cigarettes, but the long-term effects of vaping are as yet unknown. E-cigarettes are a new invention, on the market for only about 11 years.
Usage among teens has increased rapidly in the past decade. It is now estimated that more than one in four students in grades 6-12, and more than one in three young adults, have tried e-cigarettes. Because those statistics come from surveys in which the teens self-reported their behavior, the number could actually be much higher. E-cigarettes are now the most commonly used form of tobacco by American youth. Dual use (use of e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes) by the same person is common among youth and young adults (ages 18-25).
Scientists are currently studying e-cigarette use to learn what they can about its effects on health.
As a pediatrician, the risks for teens are my special concern. I make it a point to talk to my patients about this topic, and I am concerned that teens often have misconceptions about the risks of vaping.
Nearly 20% of young adults believe e-cigarettes cause no harm, more than half believe they are moderately harmful, and only 26.8% believe they are very harmful, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.
We know that a young person’s brain keeps developing until at least age 25, and we know that nicotine and other addictive substances can affect that growth. Teens are more prone to addictions when they start using a substance early. This holds true for any nicotine, whether delivered in a vaping liquid or through conventional cigarettes.
Also, research shows that teens who try vaping, thinking it is harmless, are more likely to use other addictive substances, including regular cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol and drugs. Teens are still learning how to control impulses and make decisions about risky behavior.
Flavored e-cigarettes are very popular, especially with young adults. More than 9 of 10 young adult e-cigarette users said they use e-cigarettes flavored to taste like menthol, alcohol, candy, fruit, chocolate, or other sweets. More than 8 of 10 youth ages 12-17 who use e-cigarettes said the same thing. These flavorings often contain harmful substances, and when heated to aerosol form, the micro-fine particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs.
You have to dig a little to find information about e-cigarette risks. If you have computer or cell phone, try doing a search for “e-cigarettes.” The first listings to appear will likely be advertisements for vaping products. On these sites, you will find pictures of smiling people telling you how great the products are. One site talks about how weddings, birthdays, and baby showers are great times to vape with your friends. And with so many flavors to choose from, how can you go wrong?!
Dig a little deeper, and you can find good information online about e-cigarette concerns. This is a good way to inform yourself further.
Beyond all the health risks that seem to be associated with vaping, there is the cost. One quick look at the vaping products websites, and you will see that you can sink a lot of money into buying all kinds of colorful devices and flavorful liquids. Any temporary pleasure comes at the cost of long-term goals, like saving for college, traveling overseas, buying a car, you name it.
My advice: skip the vaping and invest your time and money into something that will improve your life for a long time to come.
Dr. Elizabeth Linder has been Grace Cottage Family Health’s pediatrician since 1997. A graduate of Pomona College and the University of Vermont School of Medicine, Dr. Linder completed her residency in pediatrics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.