Should Parents Be Concerned About Vaping?

teen pulling vaper out of pocket

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While many kids now avoid traditional cigarettes, some are turning to electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes), particularly because so many other kids are using them. Vaping has become very popular among teens, even though it's illegal for those under 21. The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that more than 3.6 million youth have used e-cigarettes—more than smoke cigarettes.

However, while vaping is marketed as safer than combustible cigarettes, the scientific evidence is clear that e-cigarettes are harmful and habit-forming. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, one in five high schoolers use these products. So, even if your child isn't vaping, they most likely know kids who are, and/or are exposed to it on a regular basis at school.

What Is Vaping?

Vaping is the act of inhaling the vapor produced by an e-cigarette or vaporizer. The vapor is produced when a liquid called e-juice or e-liquid is heated. E-juice, which comes in a cartridge, usually consists of vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol (as sweeteners, flavor enhancers, and preservatives) as well as other flavorings.

Nearly all e-liquids contain some form of nicotine. Some cartridges contain as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes.

The vapor from an e-cigarette looks thicker than traditional cigarette smoke. It also tends to smell better, and it quickly dissipates into the air. Consequently, it is easier for teens to vape without being detected, especially if their parents and teachers do not know what to look for.

Although there are a variety of vaporizers available, most teens choose e-cigarettes. Starter kits come with batteries, refillable cartridges, and a charger. They are about the size of a pen and are easy to hide at school or at home. One popular option among teens is the JUUL pod.

JUUL pod devices look like a thumb drive and are easy for kids to use without being detected because they do not look like a cigarette or vape pen and fit easily in a pocket.

Vaping Concerns

Parents should be concerned about vaping because it's an unhealthy activity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), "E-cigarettes are dangerous and addictive." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that "The use of e-cigarettes is unsafe for kids, teens, and young adults."

Misconceptions About Safety

It’s important for parents to learn the facts about vaping—and educate their kids about its risks. Unfortunately, there are pervasive misconceptions about the relative safety of vaping that may encourage kids to give it a try.

Vape cartridges have names and flavors that make them sound like candy, such as mint chocolate, mango, and frozen lime drop. Research has shown that the interesting, sweet flavors are what lead kids to experiment with vaping.

High Levels of Nicotine

Many teens do not realize that vape pens or JUUL pods have dangerously high levels of nicotine in them or that they are harmful to their lungs. They often falsely assume that vaping is a safe alternative to smoking.

Risk of Addiction

Many e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive. The AAP warns, “E-cigarettes are threatening to addict a new generation to nicotine.” Pediatricians recommend stricter laws to help deter minors from accessing e-cigarettes. Nicotine may be more harmful to adolescents than adults.

Exposure to Nicotine

Brain development continues through about age 25, and nicotine may harm the developing brain. Not only are teens more susceptible to addiction, but vaping can affect their ability to concentrate, learn, and exercise. Studies have linked nicotine exposure to cognitive deficits, memory and executive function impairment, and increased impulsivity, hyperactivity, aggression, and suicidal ideation.

Exposure to Other Harmful Chemicals

Even e-cigarettes that don’t contain nicotine can be harmful. The U.S. Surgeon General warns that e-cigarettes may contain other potentially harmful ingredients, including:

  • Flavorings such as diacetyl, a chemical that has been linked to lung disease
  • Heavy metals such as nickel, lead, and tin
  • Ultra-fine particles that could be inhaled deep into the lungs
  • Volatile organic compounds

Gateway to Smoking

Additionally, research shows that being exposed to e-cigarette advertising not only increases rates of vaping in teens but also encourages later use of combustible cigarettes. And kids who vape are significantly more likely to move on to cigarettes later in life.

Studies have found that teens who use e-cigarettes are six times more likely to start smoking than those that don't vape. Plus, health professionals have warned that nicotine use can be a gateway to using other drugs, as well.

Risk of Other Health Impacts

Because e-cigarettes are relatively new, the long-term health effects on users and bystanders are not completely clear.​​ Unlike traditional smoking, there is not a lot of research on the harmful effects of vaping. But there has been a surge of stories in the media about seizures, pneumonia, and serious breathing problems tied to vaping.

A 2017 study indicates that teens who vape are twice as likely to suffer respiratory problems than peers who do not vape. They also experience persistent coughs, bronchitis, congestion, and phlegm more frequently as well.

Risk of Fire

Although uncommon, another risk factor with vaping is the fact that the devices can explode and cause serious injuries.

According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Fire Administration, the shape and size of vaping devices make them more likely to blow up than other products with lithium batteries. The devices have been referred to as "flaming rockets." When they blow up, the force behind the device has caused serious injuries to users including breaking their jaws or knocking out their teeth.

One study found that injuries from e-cigarette use resulted in nearly 2,000 emergency room visits between 2015 and 2017.

Legal Considerations

E-cigarettes are considered tobacco products because most of them contain nicotine. It is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase e-cigarettes and tobacco products. What's more, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires e-cigarettes to contain a warning on the label about the addictiveness of nicotine.

As of December 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

Despite the laws, minors find ways to get their hands on e-cigarettes. Many of them are purchasing e-cigarettes online. A 2015 study tested how easy it was to buy e-cigarettes over the internet. In the study, minors were successful in getting e-cigarettes delivered to them 94% of the time.

While the FDA has issued regulations requiring e-cigarette companies to cease manufacturing and selling flavored vaping products (excluding menthol and tobacco), kids are still using these products. Due to various FDA procedural issues, loopholes, and court delays, flavored e-cigarettes are still widely available for purchase in stores and online.

Vaping vs. Cigarettes

Vaping proponents have argued that vaping is a step down from smoking—and can eventually help smokers quit. But the FDA has never indicated that vaping is an effective smoking cessation tool, nor has the regulatory agency made any assertions that vaping is less harmful than smoking.

Likewise, the AAP says vaping should not be used to help teens quit smoking. The World Health Organization (WHO) does not recommend vaping and suggests vaping is a gateway for teens and young adults to start using other addictive substances.

Talk to Your Teen

Many teens think e-cigarettes are much cooler than traditional cigarettes. They also may insist that you don’t know what you’re talking about since e-cigarettes probably weren’t around when you were young. But these things should not deter you. It’s important to talk about the dangers of vaping, especially because most teens think e-cigarettes are fun and harmless.

Look for opportunities to bring up the subject of vaping naturally. Strike up a conversation when you see someone vaping or when you pass an e-cigarette shop. Ask a question like, “Do kids at your school vape?”

Incorporate these key points into your discussions:

  • E-cigarettes that don’t contain nicotine still contain other harmful chemicals that are bad for your brain and your body.
  • Nicotine use may cause you to become more easily addicted to harder drugs.
  • Using nicotine may make it harder for you to learn or to control your impulses.
  • Your brain is still developing until about age 25. Using nicotine as a teen could be harmful to your brain.

Hold specific conversations about how to resist peer pressure so your teen has a plan on how to respond when offered an e-cigarette. When teens find themselves in situations where people are vaping, encourage them to excuse themselves from the situation—or blame their parents for why they don't want to join in.

Talk about the health risks of being a bystander, as well as the temptation to try it themselves.

To gain credibility, acknowledge the reasons teens may want to vape—all their friends are doing it; vaping seems like the cool thing to do; the flavors sound interesting and fun. Then, discuss the downsides of doing it as well.

If your teen doubts that vaping is harmful, do some research together. Look at credible websites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Lung Association and talk about the facts and studies.

Signs Your Teen Is Vaping

Don’t assume that your teen wouldn’t vape or that you’d know if they were doing it. Many good students, star athletes, and otherwise great kids experiment with e-cigarettes at one time or another. It can be hard to detect if your teen is vaping because the odor is not as distinct as regular cigarettes. Look out for these signs.

Smelling Sweet

E-cigarettes don’t put off the same odor as traditional cigarettes. They may smell like a variety of flavors, such as bubble gum or fruit. But those sweet smells may be a sign your teen is vaping.

Bloodshot Eyes

There aren’t many physical signs that a teen is vaping. However, bloodshot eyes can be a clue.

Irritability

Being irritable is associated with e-cigarette use. If your teen is moodier than usual, it could be a sign of nicotine withdrawal.

Nosebleeds

Vaping causes the skin inside the nose to dry out. So, teens who vape tend to get nosebleeds more frequently, especially in the winter.

Being Thirsty

There is some evidence that propylene glycol found in e-cigarettes increases thirst.

Caffeine Sensitivity

Experiencing caffeine sensitivity is linked with e-cigarette use. Vaping can cause more sensitivity to caffeine and result in jitteriness, anxiety, and moodiness when combining vape pens and coffee.

Persistent Cough

Vaping harms teens' lungs and can make breathing difficult. If your teen is constantly coughing, you may want to investigate.

Vaping Supplies

Be on the lookout for e-cigarettes or vaping paraphernalia. Familiarize yourself with what the products look like so you’ll be aware if you come across something in your home.

Because e-cigarettes resemble pens or thumb drives, some parents don’t recognize them when they see them.

Additionally, be aware of your teen’s online activity. If packages come to your home addressed to your teen, pay attention to what your teen is buying.

What to Do If Your Teen Is Vaping

If you think your teen is vaping, have a direct conversation about your concerns. Schedule an appointment with your teen’s physician as well to talk about the risks. Sometimes, teens are more receptive to hearing warnings issued by medical professionals.

Quitting vaping can be challenging, particularly if your child is already addicted to nicotine. Consult a healthcare provider for guidance on which cessation methods may work best for your teen. Some options include tapering down use, quitting outright, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and products like nicotine gum or patches.

When Parents Vape

If parents use tobacco products, there’s a greater risk their kids will use them too. If you smoke or vape, quitting is the best way to reduce the likelihood that your child will pick up the habit. Ask your healthcare provider for the best smoking and vaping cessation tools, and then make a commitment to do so.

If you continue to smoke or vape, don’t do so around your children. Keep e-cigarettes and vaping devices in a secure location. This will deter older children from experimenting, and also help keep younger children safe. The candy flavors in vaping solutions often appeal to little ones, but liquid nicotine is extremely toxic and can be fatal if ingested by a toddler. Kids can even get sick if the liquid gets on their skin.

When you throw away a device or a cartridge, follow the disposal instructions on the product label. That way your child won’t be able to come in contact with the liquid.

A Word From Verywell

It's important for teens to understand how risky vaping is to their health. Share stories about the dangers and remind them that vaping impacts all areas of their lives. Not only is their health at risk, but their performance in school and in sports will suffer, too. Plus, vaping is highly addictive, and quitting can be a challenge.

Once they start, they're likely to have a hard time stopping. If you vape, you could even share stories about how hard it is for you to quit. With regular, two-way communication, you will be able to have a healthy dialogue about why vaping is not right for them. If your teen already vapes, offer them the support and encouragement they need to stop for good.

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17 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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