Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are now the most popular form of nicotine use among middle and high school students, with an estimated 3 million students using them. There has been a 10-fold increase in the use of e-cigarettes among high school students between 2011 and 2015 – from 1.5 percent to 16 percent. In fact, more teens use these products today than smoke cigarettes. Still, approximately three-quarters of young adults who report using e-cigarettes also smoke traditional cigarettes, exposing themselves to very high doses of nicotine.
Your teenager may believe e-cigarettes are completely safe and may get defensive when you try to discuss the issue. But there are significant risks to be aware of. Here’s what you and your child need to know.
What are e-cigarettes?
E-cigarettes are a type of Electronic Nicotine Delivery System (ENDS), a class of products that includes single-use e-cigarettes that look like traditional cigarettes and a range of “vaping” devices that look like futuristic, mechanical cigars. These products work by heating a liquid called an e-liquid or e-juice until it turns into an aerosol, which the user inhales. Most of the e-liquids contain highly concentrated nicotine along with other chemicals.
Why should you be concerned?
1. E-cigarettes contain nicotine, a highly addictive chemical that is particularly risky to teens and young adults.
Adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction than adults because their brains are still developing (the brain isn’t fully developed until a person's mid-twenties). The younger you are when you try nicotine or other addictive chemicals, the more likely you are to become addicted. Nicotine can also increase the risk of developing addiction to other drugs and various mental and physical health problems later in life. Additionally, nicotine can disrupt brain development and interfere with cognitive functioning.
The bottom line? Nicotine is a highly potent and addictive substance that is especially risky for the developing teen brain, no matter what form it comes in.
2. E-cigarettes contain other chemicals that pose a danger to your teen's health.
Aerosols from these products have been found to contain various toxic chemicals, heavy metals and ultrafine particles, all of which pose health risks. Although e-cigarettes are less harmful than smoked cigarettes, the common perception that these devices are safe is false: they do pose health risks.
3. Tobacco companies are marketing these products to your teen.
There are laws that prohibit companies from marketing traditional cigarettes to young people, but those laws don’t apply to electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices. Companies are free to use the same tactics that cigarette companies used in the past to attract young people. Given the uptake in teen e-cigarette use, the numbers show it’s working. For example:
- Cigarette companies are prohibited from making television commercials that glamorize smoking, but e-cigarette companies can and do air such ads.
- In 2014, nearly 7 in 10 middle and high school students were exposed to e-cigarette advertisements. A recent survey found that the majority of young people report having seen an advertisement for e-cigarettes on at least one television channel.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned flavored cigarettes (except menthol), because research shows that young people are attracted to flavors. The endless variety of candy and other enticing flavors of e-cigarette and other vaping products likely contribute to their popularity among teens.
- Only recently (August 2016) has the federal government imposed a legal minimum sale age of 18 for these electronic products.
4. Use of e-cigarettes may be a sign that your teen is smoking regular cigarettes or even marijuana.
If your teen is smoking e-cigarettes, chances are he or she has tried traditional cigarettes too. Most high school students who are current e-cigarette users also smoke cigarettes. Additionally, your teen can use vaping devices to smoke marijuana or hash oil instead of nicotine liquids. The vaporized marijuana smoke has little smell, which makes it hard to detect.
Although more research is needed for a complete assessment of the risks of e-cigarettes, the existing data show they do pose some risk, especially for young people. If your teen is using e-cigarettes, don’t write it off as a safe or a risk-free habit. While it may be less dangerous than smoking cigarettes, it is not harmless and it could mean your teen is smoking other addictive substances as well.
Emily Feinstein, JD
Director of Health Law and Policy
Ms. Feinstein leads initiatives aimed at promoting effective interventions to reduce adolescent substance use and prevent and treat addiction.