Teen Vaping on the Rise

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Nov. 15 is the annual Great American Smokeout. Learn about a teen trend worth kicking: e-cigarettes.

An estimated 37.8 million people in the U.S. smoke cigarettes, which have been traced to health risks ranging from cancer to stroke. But what about the electronic cigarettes in the form of vapes that are now so popular among teens?

According to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General, e-cigarette use grew 900 percent among high-school students between 2011 and 2015, which led to U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation in 2015. Just last week, the FDA announced that vaping had increased nearly 80 percent among high-schoolers and 50 percent among middle-schoolers since last year, prompting new measures against the flavored nicotine products.

Learn about the facts, fallacies, and dangers of vaping from Renee Nelson, MD, MS, a physician in Adult and Family Medicine, chief of Health Education, and tobacco consultant at the Kaiser Permanente Sacramento Medical Center.

For the uninitiated, what are vapes?

A vape is a small device that simulates tobacco smoking. It’s battery powered to heat an inhalable liquid that typically includes nicotine, flavoring, and some other elements, including carcinogens. One brand is Juul, so you may hear kids talk about “juuling.” The devices can look like cigars and pipes, but also like pens or USB sticks.

Describe the dangers, particularly for teens.

The innocuous packaging can be very attractive — part of the trick to kids thinking it is not bad for them. Vape flavors include gummy bear, cotton candy, or bubble gum, marketing specifically toward kids. Vapes can be so small that students can hide them in sleeves and then use them undetected in public, even in a classroom.

We know that most smokers start the habit before they are 19. Studies show that those who vape are 4 times more likely to use cigarettes. Also, we know that the nicotine, which is in most vapes, is very addictive. It can increase the risk of addiction to other substances and impact the parts of the brain that connect to mood and impulse control. Any form of tobacco is unsafe, resulting in reproductive harm, stress, anxiety, and depression. When you combine this information with the fact that adolescent brain development continues until age 25, it’s an alarming scenario.

Are e-cigarettes still on the rise among kids?

Yes. Between 2011 and 2017, vape usage rose from 1.5 percent to 11.7 percent among U.S. high-schoolers and from .6 percent to 3.3 percent among middle-schoolers. This is sobering, because the earlier you get people hooked on nicotine, the higher the likelihood they will be lifelong users.

How can the upward trend be reversed?

Regulation of e-cigarette sales varies across states, but it is relatively easy for kids to buy in stores or online. That needs to change. If cost went up on vapes, that would help, because cigarette studies have shown that teen smoking drops when cigarette prices rise. I’d like to see more vaping public education programs. For the past 25 years in the Greater Sacramento area, our Kaiser Permanente’s anti-smoking program called “Don’t Buy the Lie” educates elementary to high-school students about the dangers of vaping and smoking. In 2014, that program posted its first anti-vaping billboard, so it was way ahead of the curve on the topic.

Are there additional reputable resources for parents and teens?

At Kaiser Permanente, we have wellness coaches for adults and very effective medical treatments.  For teens, I would have them talk with their doctor for resources. For everyone, I recommend California Smokers’ Helpline, kp.org/breathe, and smokefree.gov. There are also lots of phone apps out there.

Parting thoughts?

I tell my patients that when it comes to quitting any sort of nicotine, the sooner, the better. Also, it is never too late. For parents, contact your child’s school administration to ask what is being done about vaping at school. And please talk with your kids about the dangers. A little education may go a long way.

Learn more about the American Cancer Society’s annual Great American Smokeout.

Discussion3 Comments

    • Popcorn lung was named for serious and irreversible lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. This lung disease occurred in microwave popcorn factory employees who were breathing in diacetyl, the buttery flavored chemical for the popcorn, and which incidentally is in some e-cigarette vapors. When this chemical is inhaled, there is scarring in the lungs which will result in thickening and narrowing of the airways.

      Renee Nelson, MD, MS

  1. We have been experiencing a rise at my son’s high school. Vaping is getting so out of control with students vaping in the bathroom and even in the classrooms. The schools need to make a strong stand and discipline students who have contraband and who use vape products. With the sweet smell, and taste, this is a huge draw to the younger generation. Please talk to your kids and be tough on them if you find vaping contraband or hear of them using or trying these products. Research the side effects and show them the most intense ones (scare them straight).

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