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We have all seen the advertising campaigns marketing vaping as the new, “safe” alternative to cigarettes – but sadly, this is not the case. There may be potential for it as a method to help adults who are looking to phase out tobacco use, but in light of countless companies marketing their devices and flavors to teens, these claims are starting to stink.

How Does Vaping Work?

Vaping itself refers to the practice of breathing in an aerosol concoction produced by a small handheld device. Vaping has exploded in popularity, and there is a huge range of devices currently on the market. All of these work by passing a glycerin-based liquid by a small, powerful heating element that vaporizes it to be inhaled through a mouthpiece.  The liquid often contains nicotine (or other psychoactive substances), flavorings, and a range of chemical flavorants.

With over 70% of all vape pen sales, JUUL dominates the teenage market and is popular for a variety of reasons. Sitting at a price point of $10 or less, these devices are easily concealed at school and from parents due to their discrete size and shape. And unlike traditional cigarettes, they leave a subtle scent that’s easier to hide from adults.

How Many Teens are Vaping?

While vaping habits can start long before, the percentage of teenagers vaping regularly increases as we rise through grade levels. By the time kids reach late high school, the statistics are astounding. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2018, 30% of high school seniors reported vaping nicotine at least once in the past year – a much greater figure than the mere 14% of American adults who are current smokers.

Not So Safe

Vaping is more than a harmless trend that teens will grow out of. Here’s what is being glossed over:

1. Nicotine itself is harmful and can affect brain development.

Each cartridge sold by JUUL contains as much nicotine as a pack of twenty cigarettes. Apply this to the results of one large study that identified average JUUL daily users vaping at a rate of ten cartridges each month, which comes to about seven cigarettes a day. Adolescence is a key period in brain development, lasting until the age of twenty-five. Therefore, health risks associated with teen nicotine usage can manifest and cause changes to the nervous system that can last a lifetime.

2. E-cigarettes contain other harmful chemicals.

Whether your child is using nicotine, other substances, or simply flavoring without psychoactive additives, the aerosol produced is dangerous to breathe in. Ultrafine particles are inhaled deep into the lungs, where they cause damage. Many of these liquids contain volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and flavorants such as diacetyl which have been linked to severe cases of lung disease.

3. Vaping dramatically increases teenagers’ chances of smoking tobacco.

Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances that can be bought legally. The characteristics of this chemical do not change depending on how it enters the body. It should come as no surprise that the recent National Youth Tobacco Survey suggests a high rate of teens habitually vaping:

  • Almost 40% of high schoolers and 20% of middle schoolers who use e-cigarettes vape at least twenty days per month.
  • 5% of high schoolers and 10% of middle schoolers who use e-cigarettes vape daily.

Later on, e-cigarette use transitions smoothly into combustible tobacco consumption. A large study of over 3,400 young people beginning in 2017 found that youth who had used an e-cigarette earlier in the study were seven times more likely to start smoking cigarettes by the end of the study period 2019.

Nicotine is Especially Risky for Teens

As we stated before, our brains continue maturing until the age of twenty-five. These years are sensitive ones, particularly for the final development of executive functioning, rewards, and attention. Nicotine exposure during this time seems to put young individuals at greater risk of psychiatric disorders and cognitive impairment, as well as attention deficits and imbalances in their motivational system. Each of these factors, in turn, puts individuals in general at greater risk of developing addictive habits.

In other words, nicotine is even more likely to produce addiction in the teenage brain than it is in an adult one. This is a double-edged sword as it also increases the risk of experimentation with other dangerous substances.

Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it causes 480,000 premature deaths each year – or in other words, one out of every five deaths nationwide.

Public awareness and addiction treatment has gotten us far, allowing us to fight back against this toxic substance. However, the lack of oversight regarding the vaping industry may be undoing all this work, pressing us towards a new youth smoking epidemic.

When we accept that nicotine use in any form is never harm-free and acknowledge the associated dangers, we can move closer towards successful prevention.