Teens and Vaping: What Parents Should Know

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Vaping is one of the most significant threats to the health of today’s teens. That’s even more troubling when you consider its growing popularity. Nationally, vaping rates among high-schoolers jumped by 78% from 2017 to 2018, and by 48% among middle-schoolers, according to USDA reports.

As of late November, more than 15% of Maine high school students had used e-cigarettes in the last 30 days. The true percentage is almost certainly significantly higher, reports Becky Smith of the Portland American Heart Association chapter. That’s because many teens don’t count using the popular devices called JUULs (pronounced “jewels”) as e-cigarettes.

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What is vaping?

Vaping is using an e-cigarette or other battery-powered device to heat a liquid. E-cigarette liquids – or e-liquids – typically contain nicotine, glycol, flavors and sometimes more or different ingredients. Heating this liquid creates an aerosol or vapor instead of smoke, which the user inhales and exhales.

Most popular among teens, JUULs are closed-system devices that include attaching a cartridge or pod filled with e-liquid. There are also open-system e-cigarettes, which are filled with e-liquid by hand with a squeeze dropper.

Why teens vape

Not only do teens misunderstand the risks of e-cigarettes, they are notoriously curious. Many are drawn to try vaping by friends or family members. Others are lured by enticing flavors. One study found more than 80% of first-time e-cigarette users started out with a flavored product. And with options like mint, blueberry pie and pink balloon – plus advertising on the social media sites frequented by this age group – there’s no doubt marketers are targeting teens.

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The trouble with vaping

Vaping devices were originally designed to help smokers wean themselves off cigarettes. Ironically, they come with an entire new and equally troubling set of risks.

  1. More nicotine, more addictive risk. A single JUUL pod has as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes, which means it doesn’t take long to become addicted to vaping.
  2. Teen brains are especially vulnerable, because their brains are still developing.
  3. Academic impact. Experts like Sarper Taskiran, M.D., from the Child Mind Institute report that teens who vape have more difficulty focusing, and get easily distracted by cravings.
  4. Health impact. Recent studies flip the misconception of vaping as safe, reporting that it damages lungs and immune system cells – just like smoking tobacco. Others note vaping also increases heart and blood pressure.
  5. Gateway to tobacco. Studies show teens that vape tend to move on to smoking cigarettes. One study of non-smoking high school seniors who had recently begun vaping found that one year later, students were four times more likely to say they’d smoked cigarettes that seniors who had not tried vaping.
  6. Hard to spot. With small, colorful, slick devices and virtually no telltale odor, vaping can easily escape adult detection – even in the classroom.

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What parents can do

Education is your first line of defense. When you have your information straight, your child is more likely to listen and respect your concerns and expectations. “Know that the language varies by product for vaping, dabbing and juuling,” notes Torah Tomasi, M.D., a Martin’s Point Health Care pediatrician.

“I often start by asking whether a child or teen knows someone at home or school that has used e-cigarettes,” says Tomasi, who makes it a point to ask the question during office visits. “Ask your child what he or she would do if someone asked them to try vaping. This can lead to conversation about whether the teen has experimented or is using regularly, and creates opportunity to offer care and guidance.”

Listen to your child’s point of view to build trust and signal you value his or her input. From here, it’s tempting to think you’ve covered it. But substance use is a topic to revisit on a regular basis. Tell your child to expect check-ins and more conversations and remind her you’re willing to listen to talk anytime.

If you notice shifts in your child’s mood or the peers he spends time with, check in right away. Don’t hesitate to talk with your pediatrician if you have concerns. Nicotine addiction is a serious issue that can become a lifelong problem, but there are health professionals who can help teens overcome it.

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