One of the fastest growing health concerns in the adolescent population is vaping. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 78 percent increase in vaping from 2017 to 2018. The total number of middle and high school users currently totals over 3.5 million teens.
Vaping is just another method of smoking, referred to as “non-combustible” inhalation. Conventional cigarettes make use of “combustion;” wrapping tobacco in paper and burning it. In vaping, liquid is aerosolized over a heated coil using a battery-powered ENDS (Electronic Nicotine Delivery System) device. These devices may look like traditional cigarettes but can also look like other objects such as flashlights or pens. One common device made by JUUL Labs, Inc. — hence the verb juuling — resembles a USB flash drive. This particular device is easily hidden in plain sight and can be charged by plugging it into a USB port on a laptop.
The common response from teenagers when talking about vaping is, “Well it’s not as bad as smoking cigarettes.” Some people will argue that the carcinogens inhaled with cigarette smoking are not present with vaping. The combustion process associated with the lighting of a standard cigarette releases carcinogens involved with smoking and those are not present with vaping. This misleads people to believe that vaping is not as bad for you, but it ignores the fact that vaping liquids contain other toxins and ingredients that are harmful (i.e., propylene glycol). While the amount of nicotine in vaping liquid is less than that found in cigarettes, it remains a very addictive substance. Often the liquid is applied directly to a preheated coil in a process called “dripping,” which releases a much more potent vapor that is inhaled. Suffice it to say that lungs function best when inhaled toxins and irritants are avoided.
In addition to the deleterious effects of directly inhaling vapors to the individual, there are other significant health risks associated with vaping. E-cigarette batteries can explode or catch on fire during use. Passive or secondary inhalation of the vapor can be harmful to others. The liquid vaping solution itself can be toxic to young children. Consider that nicotine is rapidly absorbed through the skin (think of smoking cessation patches) and as little as half a teaspoon of vaping liquid ingested by a toddler may be fatal.
E-cigarettes makers are very effective at marketing their products. They often present these devices as an alternative smoking cessation method, although current research does not support this claim. Teenagers are attracted to vaping because the ”juice” is available in a full array of flavors. Mint, bubblegum, chocolate and mango are some of the more enticing ones. Add a little addictive nicotine and a return customer is created. Studies show that teenagers who vape regularly are more likely to use traditional tobacco products as they get older. It is currently illegal to sell vaping products to those under the age of 18, but internet access provides an easy work around.
Vaping is and will continue to be a significant adolescent health issue. Open communication and honest discussions with the relevant facts is essential in helping our adolescents to make good choices. Additional and up-to-date information concerning vaping or e-cigarettes can be found on the CDC website and the FDA website. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ website, Healthy Children, is also a valuable resource for parents on this and many other topics.
– Craig D Mueller, M.D. is a Beaumont pediatrician in private practice in Rochester, Mich. He is also a Clinical Instructor – Pediatrics, OUWBH School of Medicine.