Teen Vaping: What We Know & What We Need to Think About

Sharing some insight on this increasingly popular teen trend...
Has your child taken up vaping? Are you kids' friend vaping? (Pixabay photo)

Juul - Phix - MODs - Oil Rigs - Vape Pens… Personal Vaporizers (a.k.a. Vapes), electronic cigarettes and other electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) are not new. There’s nothing particularly new about them. Sure, you’re likely seeing them more often and reading more about them in popular media, but as of this writing, these devices have been around for over a decade. Originally developed and marketed as a tobacco alternative, manufacturers of these devices have hung their hats on creating a safe(r) product for those seeking smoking cessation to use as they work toward a goal of kicking the habit. Times have changed. Vapes are no longer just a way to quit. For our teens, the concern is that this is just a new way that they’re getting started.

Teen vaping has been a topic of conversation for several years now, with the focus being centered on questioning if it’s safe or not. It’s easy to get confused with the messaging being delivered by manufacturers and the warnings blasted by professionals and public health groups. There’s much to be explored on this topic, and there are areas for continued research, however we do know several basic truths.

What We Know

Teen Vaping is becoming increasingly popular.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse conducts an annual Monitoring The Future Survey, which since its inception in 1975 has been viewed as the go-to resource for understanding the pulse on teen substance use trends. Tracking the annual survey results over the past several years reveals gradual increases in rates of teen vaping with 2017 data reflecting that nearly 1 in 3 high school seniors has vaped during the previous year. Anecdotally, there have been reports of pre-teens vaping for the first time in grades 5 and 6.

All E-Juices, With or Without Nicotine, Pose a Risk

E-Juice, Vape Juice, or Juice are just a few of the many names given to the water or oil based fluid that delivers the cloud of vapor once heated while using the ENDS. Some of these fluids contain nicotine; some do not.

Nicotine is a naturally occurring stimulant found in the tobacco plant, giving tobacco products their habit forming (addictive) qualities. Nicotine found in E-Juices is synthetically made and has been researched to have other chemical compounds accompany it due to its man-made nature. Nicotine, of course, has been well documented to prime the brain for addiction and other risk taking behavior. The other additives that accompany synthetic nicotine (most notably propylene glycol & glycerol) have been linked to heart disease, respiratory complications and a variety of cancers. So even though vaping is not the same as using tobacco or inhaling smoke, any inhalation of nicotine can be considered harmful.

As for the products that are advertised to be nicotine free - what’s the risk there? To understand this, we need to look at what is in the product. Typically, this would simply be water or oil as a base, and then a fruit or food flavoring - the appeal for many teen vapers. Some of these added flavorings when digested through oral consumption of food are mostly harmless. However, when heated and inhaled in the form of a vapor, have been tested to contain a variety of chemicals compounds including diacetyl and formaldehyde, amongst others, that are known to compromise the respiratory system and are linked to cancer.

Teen Vaping May Lead to other Substance Use

When we take a look at the early smoking prevention campaigns of the 1980’s and 90’s, we likely remember the rationale being centered in the public health concern of lung cancer and other medical concerns. This is true, rather part of the truth, as teen tobacco use (the only nicotine delivery system at the time) was linked to teen substance use. Rates of teen tobacco use are at historic lows; teen substance use is down too. Teen vaping is on the rise with 1 in 4 of those who vape reporting using nicotine infused E-Juices. Professionals and researchers voice concern for the potential rise of teen substance use in the years to come as a byproduct of this trend.

And if that’s not enough to ponder on, with the ever-changing marijuana legislature in the US, some of these E-Juices are also infused with marijuana or its primary psychoactive ingredient, THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol). According the the Monitoring the Future survey, approximately 10% of teen vapers are already vaping marijuana based products.

What We Need to Think About

A lot of the current discourse being carried on over about ENDS can be rather polarizing. They’re good - they’re bad; They’re safe - they cause cancer…  It’s not so black and white. Vaping is a part of our consumer culture and it’s not going away in the foreseeable future. What’s best to do at the moment is recognize it for what it is - a tobacco alternative, originally developed to aid in smoking cessation. Does it contain carcinogens and other chemicals that may lead to other medical complications, yes - however these chemicals are tested at a lower concentration than tobacco users. So for current smokers, vaping may be preferred as a harm reduction strategy. However to say that there is no harm or no risk involved with vaping is a misnomer.

We have a generation of teens who are less likely to use tobacco products due to effective anti-smoking campaigns and parental involvement with conversations at home. These same teens, and possibly their parents, believe that there is no risk to using ENDS. Through continued research and public education we can be better informed on what these products are, what we can do with them and if there is any risk involved. And now that we are starting to receive hard data on the risks of teen vaping, it’s time to start having conversations at home - very likely the same conversations had in homes a generation ago about tobacco.

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