Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are now the most popular form of nicotine use among middle and high school students, with an estimated 2.1 million students reporting using them in 2017. Roughly 3.3 percent of all middle school students and 11.7 percent of all high school students in the United States have used e-cigarettes. There was an eight-fold increase in the use of e-cigarettes among high school students between 2011 and 2017 – from 1.5 percent to 11.7 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 or like everyday household devices such as thumb drives, pens, sticks of gum, or erasers. Today, the most the most popular brand of e-cigarette or vape product used by teens and young adults is the JUUL. Most vaping 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 potentially toxic 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 someone is when they 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. Nicotine can disrupt brain development and interfere with cognitive functioning. The majority of vaping products contain high doses of nicotine. In fact, the amount of nicotine contained in one flavor pod of a JUUL, the most popular vaping product, is roughly equivalent to the nicotine content of an entire pack of cigarettes.
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 2016, an estimated 4 in 5 middle and high school students were exposed to e-cigarette advertisements, a significant increase over 2015.
- 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. Most teens who use them say that they wouldn’t vape if the products weren’t flavored.
- Only recently in 2016 did the federal government impose a legal minimum sale age of 18 for these electronic products.
The loopholes in marketing regulations may explain how e-cigarettes became so popular with teens so quickly.
4. Use of e-cigarettes may be a sign that your teen is smoking regular cigarettes or even marijuana.
If your teen is vaping, chances are he or she has tried traditional cigarettes too. Most high school students who are current e-cigarette users also smoke cigarettes. Teens who vape are not only much more likely to end up smoking, they also are up to 5 times as likely to use other combustible tobacco products, including hookah, cigars or pipes.
Additionally, your teen can use vaping devices to smoke marijuana or hash oil instead of nicotine liquids. Teens, especially younger teens, who used e-cigarettes but not marijuana had double the likelihood of using marijuana one year later. The vaporized marijuana smoke has little smell, which makes it hard to detect.
Although research continues to assess the risks of e-cigarettes, the existing data show they do pose a 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 using 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.