E-cigarettes and Teenagers: A Growing Epidemic

E-cigarette use is becoming epidemic among teens. What's the right way to talk to your child about the dangers?
E Cigarettessmall

Though the use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) among teenagers was essentially non-existent five years ago, it has risen to epidemic proportions. How did we get here? How bad is it for your adolescent or teen? How do you talk to him or her about it? Let’s start with the basics.

What is an e-cigarette?

An e-cigarette is a cigarette-shaped device that heats liquid into an aerosol that the user inhales. In addition to flavoring, the liquid usually contains nicotine, which is highly addictive. E-cigarettes are considered tobacco products because most of them contain nicotine, and nicotine comes from tobacco. Using an e-cigarette is called “vaping.”

In the last few decades, we have seen tremendous progress in our nation’s addiction to tobacco cigarettes. In fact, the percentage of tobacco smokers was at an all-time low last year and that is great news! Unfortunately, e-cigarettes usage rates among middle and high school students in the United States have increased tremendously in the last five years. Commissioner of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, has called the surge in electronic cigarette usage in the teenage population an epidemic. In 2018, one in five high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the last month.

What are the health risks?

Brain risks: The brain is known to grow and develop until the age of 25. Nicotine can affect the way certain connections form within the brain, which can harm parts of the brain that control attention and learning. Among other concerns of exposing developing brains to nicotine are nicotine addiction, mood disorders and lowering impulse control. 

Respiratory health risks: A recent study from Duke University shows asthma-like symptoms from smokers of e-cigarettes. Another concern is a disease related to the diacetyl compound from flavoring in e-cigarettes, known as popcorn lung or bronchiolitis obliterans. Scientists are still studying the health effects of the various other compounds found in e-cigarettes. 

Use of other tobacco products: E-cigarettes among youth and young adults are linked to the use of other tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars and hookahs. Some people have suggested that the use of e-cigarettes among teens may protect them from smoking tobacco cigarettes. There is no evidence for this claim. Nearly three out of five high school smokers also use e-cigarettes.

What can you do to protect your child?

The surgeon general has a great website dedicated to opening up the conversation between adults and their children about e-cigarettes. These are the tips I find most helpful for parents:

  • Find the right moment. A more natural discussion will increase the likelihood that your teen will listen, rather than saying “we need to talk.”
  • Be patient and ready to listen. Avoid criticism and encourage an open dialogue. Don’t lecture.
  • Set a positive example by being tobacco-free. If you use tobacco, it’s never too late to quit. If you have trouble quitting, talk to your doctor and ask for help.

Despite the increasing usage of e-cigarettes among young adults and accompanying health risks, there are some encouraging signs that we, as a society, will not let e-cigarette use cause the same kind of damage as tobacco cigarettes. The FDA and surgeon general have recognized the problem early and released position statements. We have non-profit organizations developing anti-vaping commercials targeted to young adults.

And you are not alone! As a parent, you have access to many resources to start a conversation with your child and keep it open and on-going, helping your family be smoke-free.

 

Dr. Walid Eltaraboulsi is a board-certified pulmonologist at the Ballantyne location of Tryon Medical Partners, and is an expert in e-cigarette use among adolescents and teens. He holds a board certification in Critical Care Medicine. He has a Masters of Public Health and is getting his Masters of Business Administration.