While there is nothing particularly new about e-cigarettes, having been around for over a decade, their use has skyrocketed in the last few years. And it comes as no surprise that teenagers are the fastest growing demographic for e-cigarette makers. In 2017, there were an estimated 2.1 million adolescent users of e-cigarettes, ranging from 7th to 12th grades. This is well beyond the number of adolescent users of standard tobacco products.

Of particular concern to school administrators and teachers is the now ubiquitous JUUL devices. JUUL is one of the most popular vape devices on the market. It’s inconspicuous size and design (many look like a usb drive), combined with the fact that there is no tell-tale smell of smoke, make is especially hard to detect. JUUL’s success has come in part through a marketing campaign and product design aimed specifically at the adolescent market – something the FDA is currently looking into and promises to crack down on.

What is vaping?

Every vape pen works in essentially the same way. A small amount of nicotine liquid (juice) is heated to the point of vaporizing, and it is this vapor that is inhaled. Often, the liquid is flavored to make the taste more appealing to the user. (More on that in a bit…)

What started, ostensibly, as an aid to stop smoking, has developed into a new form of ‘smoking’, and one that is quickly supplanting traditional smoking products. The problem is that many of these juices are heavily concentrated forms of nicotine, potentially making this an even more addictive product than other tobacco products.

What are the risks?

While many of the risks associated vaping do appear to be less severe when compared to traditional smoking, it is becoming clear that there are risks involved with vaping.

Some known risks of vaping are:

  • The juice used in these devices have been found to contain carcinogenic compounds, and a recent study found significantly increased levels of carcinogens in the urine of teens who vape.
  • And many of the physical impacts of vaping are similar to smoking. Vapers have reported lowered stamina and endurance, and some doctors have noted lung irritation as well as circulatory issues that are similar to what is seen in smokers.
  • E-cigarettes contain concentrated levels of nicotine. Some makers of the juice claim that a single teaspoon contain the same quantity of nicotine as 60 cigarettes.
  • These high nicotine levels are associated with higher rates of addiction, particularly in teenagers, who tend to be more susceptible to addiction than adults. Many studies are showing a correlation between vaping and subsequent drug/alcohol use a few years later.

Why parents should be concerned

A large reason that vaping has become so endemic, is that many teenagers do not understand these risks, and many believe it be completely safe. Early studies indicated that e-cigarettes posed a much lower risk to one’s health than smoking did. Many individuals seized on that data- much of which we are still learning about – and ran with it. Many teenagers think that they are doing little more than inhaling flavored water vapor.

And the marketing strategies of the fluid manufacturer’s and companies like JUUL are not helping. A quick look at the names and flavors of these juices reveals a troubling trend – they are clearly marketed to adolescents. With flavor categories that include Candy, Dessert, and Fruit, and flavors with names like Pinkle Twinkle, It’s So Fluffy and Ya Killin’ Me S’mores (those are all real), it seems obvious that even the pre-teen market is not off limits for these companies.

What should we do?

Many schools are taking a hard line, zero tolerance stance on this issue. Get caught vaping, get an immediate suspension. While this may work in the short term to quell some of the more open users, it will not likely have any real long-term effects. Anti-smoking campaigns tried many of the same tactics with lackluster results.

What eventually did work with smoking is education. Schools participating in anti-smoking education, encouraging families to do the same, and even providing educational opportunities for parents to learn how to talk to their kids about the dangers of smoking all had a definite impact on the rate of teenage smoking in this country.

Education on vaping, and open discussion within the family about how to avoid these behaviors will not be 100% successful, but it may be the only thing that provides measurable, long-term results.

Just as zero tolerance policies have not worked in school, having an ultimatum style conversation with your child may not have a positive impact either. Instead, make it an open discussion, let your son or daughter express their experiences and feelings on the topic, and help to guide them to a new understanding of the health risks and dangers.

One thing is certain: there will always be something new n the horizon that will present a risk to our children. Our job as parents and teachers is to address this openly and keep the channels of communication open within our communities. If our children feel comfortable talking to us, we have an opportunity to guide them, but once that sense of safety is gone, it is hard to earn back and often drives unhealthy behaviors.